Thursday 23 April 2020

Baroque Violin Sonatas: 17th century virtuoso violin playing on a new disc from Berlin

 Baroque violin sonatas Philipp Friedrich Böddecker, Johann Erasmus Kindermann, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber; Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, Sabine Erdmann, Magnus Andersson; Solaire Records
Baroque violin sonatas Philipp Friedrich Böddecker, Johann Erasmus Kindermann, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber; Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, Sabine Erdmann, Magnus Andersson; Solaire Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The byways of 17th century German violin playing explored in this wonderful new disc from a trio of Berlin-based musicians

Whilst 17th century composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber is reasonably well known, his music apart from a few key works remains relatively unknown, and his contemporary (and work colleagues at the Imperial Court) Johann Heinrich Schmelzer remains perhaps only a name. With two earlier composers from the period, Philipp Friedrich Böddecker and Johann Erasmus Kindermann, even their names will perhaps seem unfamiliar.

This new disc Baroque Violin Sonatas from three Berlin-based musicians, Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, baroque violin, Sabine Erdmann, organ, and Magnus Andersson, theorbo, on Solaire Records, goes a long way to remedying these lacaunae by presenting us with a programme of violin sonatas by Biber, Schmelzer, Böddecker and Kindermann (Available from 24 April).

The impulse for the record came from the performers, three friends who decided to explore music from the time of Heinrich Biber, performed by just violin, organ and theorbo. Another impetus was harpsichordist, Sabine Erdmann's chest organ built in 2015 by Karl Friedrich Wienecke and inspired not by existing German or Italian Baroque organs but by one in Knole House. I have no idea how historically informed performing this music with theorbo and organ continuo is, but in these performances you hardly care such is the engaging vitality of the performances.

The disc starts with a one movement sonata by the earliest of our four composers, Philipp Friedrich Böddecker (1607-1683), born in Alsace, who worked as organist at the court in Darmstadt, at Strassburg Cathedral (when he wrote his violin sonata) and then at Stuttgart. We then move to the most recent, and best known, Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), born Bohemia. He publishes his Rosary Sonatas in 1676 and becomes deputy Kapellmeister at the Imperial Court. In 1781, he publishes his Sonatae a Violino Solo from which the present disc presents us with Sonata No. II in D minor, Sonata No. VI in C minor, and Sonata No. V in E minor, each of which is in three or four movements.

Between the Biber sonatas we have sonatas by the other two composers. Johannes Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1780) was Biber's superior at the Imperial Court. Born in Lower Austria, he started work at the Hapsburg Court in the 1630s and remained there until his death. In 1664, he publishes his Sonatae unarum fidium, a collection of violin sonatas from which we hear Sonata Tertia in G minor and Sonata IV in D minor which concludes the recital. The fourth composer Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) was born in Nuremberg, and was already working by the age of 15. He remained in Nuremberg all his life, becoming a renowned teacher and published is Canzone, Sonatae in 1653. We hear his Sonata for violin and basso continuo in A minor and his Sonata for violin and basso continuo in D minor. Though these two are in a single movement, they are in contrasting sections and can be seen as important pre-cursors of the work of Biber.

The 17th century was a time of change in music, and the works on this disc demonstrate how composers (many of whom were violinists themselves) were exploring and developing the idea of virtuosity. Both Biber and Kindermann used scordatura (tuning the strings down to create other harmonic possibilities), and all four composers on this disc use multi-section (or multi-movement) works which contrast highly virtuosic passages with music of a more intimate nature. Another area of experimentation was in form, not all these sonatas are based on the idea of sequences of dances and some are far more free in their structure.

Perhaps a key factor in this is what was happening in Germany in the earlier part of the 17th century. 1648 marked the Peace of Westphalia, the end of the Thirty Years War which ravaged Germany and the Empire. Courts had little time for music making,  and that the post-war resurgence drew out smaller scale pieces based on the idea of the virtuosic composer performer is no surprise.

The performances on this disc are wonderfully vital and engaging. Violinist Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir has a lovely warm tone and an easy technique which makes the busy-ness of some of the violin writing seem entirely natural. Her virtuosity is expressive and musical rather than 'look at me', and it helps that this is real chamber music with a feeling of balance and dialogue between the three musicians.

The CD booklet, which is admirably thick, gives us a timeline with useful dates for both music of the time and the four composers on the disc, but apart from that it does not say much about the music, leaving it to speak for itself. Instead, there is a trio of illuminating interview articles, providing background on the three performers and their instruments.

If you don't know much 17th century German violin music and perhaps the idea makes you quail, then think again. Try this engaging disc and explore some of the more amazing byways of German Baroque music in these wonderfully vivid performances.

Philipp Friedrich Böddecker (1607-1683) - Sonata in D minor [6:59]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) - Sonata II in D minor, C 139 [7:57]
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680) - Sonata Tertia in G minor [7:08)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber - Sonata VI in C minor, C 143 [11:35]
Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) - Sonata for violin and basso continuo in A minor [3:40]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber - Sonata V in E minor, C 142 [10:09]
Johann Erasmus Kindermann - Sonata for violin and basso continuo in D minor [3:57]
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer - Sonata IV in D minor [9:25]
Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, baroque violin
Sabine Erdmann, organ
Magnus Andersson, theorbo
Recorded at the Kirche zum Heilige Kreuz, Berlin, 1-4 July 2019

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