Saturday 6 May 2017

Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in 17th century virtuoso violin music

A portrait of the Heinrich Biber, engraved by Paulus Seel for Biber's Sonatae Violino solo (1681)
A portrait of the Heinrich Biber, engraved by Paulus Seel
for Biber's Sonatae Violino solo (1681)
Biber, Buxtehude, Schmelzer, Kühnel; Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 5 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Arcangelo enchants in a programme of dazzling 17th century violin music

Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo continued their residency at the Wigmore Hall last night (5 May 2017) with a late night concert showcasing virtuoso violin music from 17th century Austria. Sophie Gent (violin), Jonathan Manson (viola da gamba), Thomas Dunford (lute) and Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord) performed a striking programme of music by Heinrich Biber, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and August Kühnel. Apart from one of Biber's Mystery Sonatas (or Rosary Sonatas) this was repertoire which is not well known, but the performers showed us that music from the 17th century Austrian composer violinists can enchant and entertain as much as the early Italian repertoire.

We started with the first of the Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), 'No. 1 in D minor The Annunciation'. The sonata is intended to evoke the first of the 'Five Joyful Mysteries', the Annunciation. The free prelude was rhapsodic, with Gent making the virtuoso violin part extremely expressive. Followed by an aria and variations, these were virtuoso too, yet played with a great sense of ensemble between the players. This was far more than just solo violin and accompaniment. The piece finished in the air, leaving us wanting more, and impressed with the sense of free improvisation Gent brought to the work.

The only surviving portrait of Dietrich Buxtehude, playing a viol, from A musical party by Johannes Voorhout (1674)
The only surviving portrait of Dietrich Buxtehude,
playing a viol, from
A musical party by Johannes Voorhout (1674)
Dietrich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) is still something of an undervalued name, perhaps best known for the fact that JS Bach walked 250 miles to hear him play. His Trio Sonata in A minor for violin, viola da gamba and continuo (performed by Gent, Manson and Cohen) dates from around 1670, one of eight sonatas by Buxtehude to survive. In three movements, the outer two are both chaconnes with an adagio in the middle. The opening movement was elegant and formal yet the performance was engaging too with a lovely sense of dialogue between violin and viola da gamba. The slow movement was elegantly sung and then the final chaconne went with a swing, with sheaves of notes swapped by violin and viola da gamba. At the end it just evaporated; delightful! The whole performance had a fresh, new-minted feel to it. It would be lovely to hear more of this Buxtehude repertoire.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620/3-1680) was another Austrian violin virtuoso who dazzled his contemporaries, becoming the first non-Italian Hofkapellmeister at the Imperial Court in Vienna. His Sonatae unarum fidium were published in 1664, and we heard no. 3 in G minor played by Gent, Dunford and Cohen. Between each item in the programme, Jonathan Cohen engagingly introduced the music; for this one he, Gent and Dunford played the opening line of the sonata exactly as published (just a violin line and bass line) so that we could compare it to the 'finished' article with Gent ornamenting, and Cohen and Dunford filling in the harmony.

The work opened with more variations, with Gent giving a real improvisatory feel to the music. The piece alternated fast and slow sections, with the fast ones all virtuoso dazzle and the slow ones full of mesmerising beauty; rather magical.

The Austrian viol player August Kühnel (1645-1700) gave concerts in London in the 1680s and in his spoken introduction Jonathan Manson pointed out that this was the period which his viola da gamba has been made in London (by a maker in St Paul's churchyard in Covent Garden). Manson's playing was put centre stage in Kühnel's Sonata No.7 in G fo viola da gamba and continuo (with Gent taking a rest).  After a slow prelude full of rich chords, there was an aria full of wonderful passagework. A slow movement with music full of elegant line was followed by a final aria full of elegance and vigour.

Next came another of Schmelzer's sonatas, no. 4 in D, This opened with a rather wandering violin line, beautifully sung by Gent. From this Schmelzer fashioned a free sequence of movements, which alternated very free, improvisatory passages with more fast virtuoso ones, sometimes toe-tappingly vivid and sometimes a striking chaconne. It was all very intriguing and engaging, finishing very fast and bravura.

Finally we heard another Biber sonata, no. 6 in C minor from Biber's published 1681 collection Sonatae Vilino solo. Here we got one of Biber's trademarks, scordatura, tuning the strings away from the standard. Half-way through the piece the violinist needs to tune the top E string down a tone. Certainly not as extreme as some of the re-tunings in Biber sonatas, but it does introduce a different soundworld. The introduction was elegant and flowing, followed by a passacaglia full of vibrant and exciting scales. In the next movement Gent brought improvisatory freedom to the cascades of violin notes, now playing the re-tuned violin. The gavotte was elegant, but there was great vigour in the playing too and the violin part was still rather virtuoso. The final sequence of movements was rather free, moving from a lovely fluidity through music of great intensity to some vigorous passagework. Yet the piece came to rest in rather a quiet manner, all in all a striking constructions.

Throughout the evening we had a great sense of the collegiate style performance from the players, with a great sense of engagement and an engagingly involving style of playing. Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo's most recent disc is Couperin's L'Apotheose de Lully and Lecons de Tenebres on Hyperion.

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