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Johann Joseph VILSMAčR (1663-1722)
Six Partitas (Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera) (1715) [89:13]
Johann Georg PISENDEL (1663-1722)
Sonata in A minor (pre-1716) [18:49]
Heinrich Ignaz BIBER (1644-1704)
Passacaglia in G minor 'The Guardian Angel' (Mystery Sonatas No.16) (1676) [10:05]
Vaughan Jones (violin)
rec. St Mary Magdalene Church, Willen, Milton Keynes, UK, 20, 24, 27 March, 14 April, 6 August 2015
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR38 [69:57 + 48:12]

Towering over the Baroque repertoire for solo violin are the three Sonatas and three Partitas by Bach. Without a shadow of doubt they are works of utter genius. The downside is that so long is the shadow they cast that works such as the delightful six Partitas by Johann Joseph Vilsma r have got rather lost and that is a loss - until now and this very fine set from British violinist Vaughan Jones which seems to be the first recording of the complete set.

These Vilsma r Partitas predate the Bach by a few years but they share some characteristics in that the chosen form is a sequence of contrasting movements based on a stylised form of dance with introductory preludes. Jones also contributes the extended and very interesting liner which charts Vilsma r's musical pedigree and influences. There is little or no point comparing and contrasting these works to the Bach set. In essence these are delightful works conceived on a concentrated but relatively brief scale. Each consists of nine or ten movements few of which break the two minute barrier. Within each movement there is a bi-partite form in which each half is repeated.

Jones characterises the instrument he uses as "... a hybrid, being a mixture of baroque and modern elements." This description applies equally to his chosen performance style. He prefers a bowing style that is more modern in the degree of string contact he generates but this is balanced by sparing use of vibrato and a pleasingly unmannered and understated subtle musicianship. As Bach was to do to an even greater - and more technically demanding - degree, Vilsma r deploys various technical devices such as double-stopping and arpeggiated figurations to give this essentially monophonic music greater harmonic and polyphonic implications. Jones is very good at leading the listening ear and his voicing of the chords is excellently poised and unfussily accurate. His violin - a modern instrument made in 2007 by Martin McClean - sounds full and warm in the generous acoustic of St Mary Magdalene Church Milton Keynes. The engineering and production by David Jones is equally successful - much like the playing unfussy but sophisticated.

Vilsma r manages to produce an appealingly varied sequence of movements. This is a set to be dipped into - through no fault of the performer there is a degree of sameness after nearly ninety minutes of such music. One of the particular interests is that Vilsma r deploys scordatura tuning in four of the six works. This is the musical device where the normal 'open fifths' of the violin tuning are altered. These 'new' open strings allow different chords and voicings to be more easily achieved. It is worth remembering that in the 17th and 18th centuries 'unequal temperament' meant that keys were assigned 'characters' that are all but lost on our equally-tempered ears. Indeed it could be argued that the very purity and accuracy of Jones' playing somehow diminishes the variety in the music but that is being overly picky. This is delightful and fascinating music beautifully presented.

I see that there is another single disc version of this set played by Gunar Letzbor on Arcana. That disc - which I have not heard - runs to just seventy-two minutes for all six partitas. Given that Jones is no slouch I imagine Letzbor must omit repeats which must make the short movements even shorter - which I doubt is to the music's benefit. One of the aspects of the performance in the Jones' recording - which is very successful - is the sense of flow. Yes the individual sections are well characterised and delineated but at the same time Jones achieves a continuity between the various dances which binds the works together on a larger scale.

At the risk of repeating myself, this has proved to be a most rewarding and enjoyable voyage of discovery; even more so when one considers the 'fillers' that have been added to the second disc. Johann Georg Pisendel is a composer/violinist I knew not at all. He was a contemporary and indeed friend of Bach and Jones postulates in his liner that he might well have been one of the players Bach had in mind for his own solo violin works. Here Jones plays the Sonata in A minor and it proves to be something of a discovery. I like Jones' description in the liner: "Bach's is meditative, organic and sure-footed whilst Pisendel's is unpredictable, tempestuous and capricious". Jones is referring specifically to the work's opening Adagio which Jones feels - rightly I am sure - influenced Bach's own G minor solo Sonata. The similarity, in spirit at least, is striking and again Jones proves to be a convincing and intelligent guide. Each of the work's four movements is significantly longer and more deliberately substantial than anything Vilsma r was seeking to achieve. As such the music is more arresting and impressive. Jones adopts a more muscular approach which seems to chime with the scope of the music. It's fascinating time and again to hear parallels and echoes of the Bach works. Jones is quite right to compare Pisendel's unpredictable implicit use of harmony with Bach's extraordinarily inexorable progression from first bar to last. Technically this is quite an advance from the relative simplicity of the Vilsma r works but Jones maintains the same qualities of even-ness of tone production and well-judged voice leading.

The set is completed by the comparatively well-known Passacaglia by Heinrich Ignaz Biber. This forms part of his Mystery Sonatas and after the Bach is probably the best-known Baroque chamber works for violin. Biber made extensive use of scordatura tuning in this set although not in this work which is also the only one of the set for solo instrument. Throughout the set Jones adopts a style with minimum - but effective - use of vibrato and a rounded but not overly full tone. This reinforces the contemplative almost austere character of this impressive work. It proves to be an impressive and apt conclusion to the set.

Including the repeats in the Vilsma r Partitas necessitates the use of a second disc - albeit to accommodate only the sixth and longest of these Partitas. The Pisendel and Biber are significant 'fillers' and by marketing this set at a '2 for 1' price-point First Hand Records makes a virtue of such a necessity. As I mentioned earlier, in purely musical terms, I am far from convinced that the Arcana disc's alternative of omitting repeats is in any way preferable.

Overall something of an unexpected delight. Yes, Bach's genius remains unchallenged but the Vilsma r and particularly Pisendel prove themselves worthy moons to that glorious sun. In Vaughan Jones they have a scholarly, musicianly and extremely skilled champion - an all-round excellent set well worth exploring.

Nick Barnard


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