1723 violin RAM2202

1723 – Bach, Bertali, Biber, Corelli, Pisendel
Nadja Zwiener (violin)
Johannes Lang (organ)
rec. 2022, Kreuzkirche, Störmthal, Germany
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Outhere
Ramée RAM2202 [74]

Almost anyone knows that 1723 was the year Bach was appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig. This year (2023) several discs have been released to mark this occasion. However, this is not what the title of the present disc refers to. The recording was made in Störmthal, a small village southwest of Leipzig, which has a fame that goes way beyond its size. According to Wikipedia, it had just 512 inhabitants on 31 December 2014. Its fame is based on its organ, built in 1723 by Zacharias Hildebrandt, and on its connections with the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1722, the village’s church was renovated and extended, and part of that was the building of a new organ. The chamberlain Statz Hilmar von Fullen, an official of the elector’s court who had settled in Störmthal Castle and who had largely funded the new church, entrusted the task of building the organ to Zacharias Hildebrandt, who had been trained by the famous Gottfried Silbermann, and had just set up his own business. It took him less than a year to build and erect the organ. Johann Sebastian Bach was invited to examine the organ in November of that year. According to sources in the Störmthal parish archive, “on 2 November 1733 [the instrument] was taken, examined and tested by the famous Princely Kapellmeister of the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen and Music Director, also Cantor of Leipzig, Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, who recognised and lauded it as capable and consistent”.

One of the features of many village organs in Germany is that they have largely escaped the adjustments to the taste of the time, which was common practice in the larger towns during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The reason is that villages mostly simply did not have the money for such adaptations. That seems to have been the case in Störmthal as well. Only minor adjustments took place, which in 2007 were rectified, when the organ was returned to its original state of 1723. Today it is pitched at Chorton (a’=462 Hz) and its temperament is Silbermann 1/6 comma. By coincidence, Nadia Zwiener plays a violin that also dates from 1723; it was built by David Tecchler in Rome. As his name suggests, he was of German origin, and in his violin making he was strongly inspired by Jacob Stainer, the most famous violin maker of the 17th century. Arcangelo Corelli was one of many who played a Stainer violin.

The fact that the two instruments date from the same year inspired the two artists to bring them together in a programme of music for violin and organ. That is to say: all the pieces – except the Prelude, largo and fugue in C by Bach – are scored for violin and basso continuo. In such pieces the basso continuo is mostly played on harpsichord, often with an additional string bass and sometimes also a plucked instrument, but it is perfectly possible to use an organ instead. However, as these pieces are intended as chamber music, to be played in a domestic environment, the organ used in such repertoire is mostly a relatively small instrument. It is not often that this kind of music is performed with a large church organ, as is the case here.

The practice applied by Nadja Zwiener and Johannes Lang is known in German as “Spielen in die Orgel”, translated: “playing in the organ”. It was part of a performance practice in particular in northern Germany in the 17th century. The poet Johann Rist once came especially to the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg in order “to hear the world-famous Herr Scheidemann on the organ. After the sermon was finished, my very revered friend, the old, much-praised Herr Schope [Schop] said to Herr Scheidemann: My brother, let us together make a fine piece for the pleasure of our worthy friend. Since the noble Scheidemann was entirely willing, they began to play for me an extremely agile little piece whose text was sung very charmingly by a skillful falsetto.”

On this disc this practice is applied to music from the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century. Obviously Bach plays a key role in the programme. The two sonatas BWV 1021 and 1023 are his only pieces for violin and basso continuo; the remaining works with a solo violin are unaccompanied or have an obbligato keyboard part. The Sonata in G is modelled after the sonata da chiesa; it is known from a single source, a copy made by Anna Magdalena Bach, which dates from about 1733. The Sonata in E minor is a mixture of the sonata da chiesa and the sonata da camera. The only source of this sonata is a Dresden manuscript from around 1730. Bach had strong ties with the Dresden music scene, and knew some of the most prominent members of the court chapel personally, such as Johann Georg Pisendel and Silvius Leopold Weiss.

From that angle it is only logical to include a piece by the former here. Born in Cadolzburg, Pisendel started his career as a chorister at the court of Ansbach in 1697. There he took violin lessons from Giuseppe Torelli. In 1703 he entered the court orchestra as a violinist. In 1709, on his way to Leipzig to study at the university, he met Bach at Weimar. In 1712 he became a member of the court orchestra at Dresden, one of the best ensembles of Germany. When the concert master Jean-Baptist Woulmyer (Volumier) died in 1728 Pisendel took over his duties, and was officially appointed as his successor in 1730. During his time in Dresden he had plenty opportunities to visit some of the main music centres in Europe. In 1714 he was in France, in 1715 in Berlin and in the years 1716-1717 he stayed in Italy. In Venice he met Vivaldi, from whom he took lessons, but who soon considered Pisendel as his colleague and friend. It resulted in a lifelong love of the Italian style, and especially the music of Vivaldi. 

His friend Johann Friedrich Agricola reports that Pisendel was extremely critical of his own works: “He was never satisfied with his own work but always wanted to improve it; indeed, he reworked it more than one time. Now this cautiousness was really somewhat exaggerated. It may also be one reason that so little of his work has become known”. It may also be the reason that his extant oeuvre is rather small. The Sonata in E minor is one of only a handful of pieces for violin and basso continuo. It has survived in two versions; the first version consists of four movements, the later has only three, and that is the version performed here.

Arcangelo Corelli was one of the most influential composers of the late 17th century. With his sonate da chiesa and sonate da camera he influenced generations of composers in the writing of solo and trio sonatas. His Sonatas op. 5 disseminated quickly across Europe and were arranged in many different ways. Bach’s oeuvre shows the influence of the Roman master as well; he also used a subject from a sonata by Corelli for a fugue for organ. The sixth sonata from the Op. 5 is included here.

The two remaining pieces for violin and basso continuo bring us to Austria. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber has become best-known for his so-called Mystery Sonatas, which have been recorded numerous times. The rest of his oeuvre is lesser-known, and that goes also for his Sonatae which were printed in 1681. These sonatas are not formally divided into movements; the various and contrasting sections follow each other attacca. This is a feature of a style the theorist Athanasius Kircher called stylus phantasticus. The Sonata V in E minor is telling: the first section has no tempo indication; it is followed by two adagios, variatio, adagio, presto, aria and variatio. The sonatas reflect Biber’s own brilliance, and include frequent double stopping.

Antonio Bertali was from Verona and worked the largest part of his life at the court of the Habsburgs in Vienna, since 1649 as Kapellmeister. He has written a large number of works, but unfortunately much of it has been lost. He was a virtuosic violinist, and may have been one of the teachers of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. His Ciaconna in C is one of numerous pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries that are based on a basso ostinato, a repeated bass pattern over which the treble part plays increasingly virtuosic variations. Here the bass consists of a descending fourth from the tonic, followed by two ascending major seconds separated by a whole tone, with a final descending fifth to the tonic. This pattern is repeated 152 times, sometimes slightly altered. It is easy to see why such pieces were so popular and still create a sense of excitement.

In addition to these chamber music works we get an organ piece by Bach. The Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 545) has come down to us in various versions, one of them in B flat. One of the differences between them is the number of sections: some come in two, some in three, with the trio from the Sonata in C (BWV 529) as a slow middle section. That is the version performed here. That is not unusual, but it is notable that here in the middle movement the upper voice is performed by the violin.

I know only a few discs where “playing in the organ” is practised. The reason may be that often recordings go along with or follow live performances. The combination of a large organ and a violin is not easy to realise in a concert. Not that many organs are suitable for this way of performing, and the violinist has to stand close to the organ at the gallery, which may make it hard to hear in the entire venue. In a recording it is also easier to find the right balance between the two instruments.

The pieces by Bach are well-known, but it is nice to hear them differently. We should not think that this is “authentic”, in that Bach, for instance, may have played the two sonatas with a large organ. That seems extremely unlikely. That also goes for the rest of the programme. It is more like a creative way of approaching music intended for a different way of performing. The quality of the performances makes up for these reservations. Nadja Zwiener plays with the major baroque orchestras of our time, and shows herself to be an excellent violinist, with a beautiful tone, nice dynamic shading and stylish ornamentation. In the pieces by Biber and Bertali she can show that she is a true virtuoso. Johannes Lang has for a few years now been organist of St Thomas’s in Leipzig, where he plays not only the symphonic organ, but also the Bach organ that has been installed there. The organ in Störmthal is a very fine instrument, and Lang handles it perfectly, exploring the colours to good effect, while at the same time aiming at a good balance with the violin.

In short, this is a most enjoyable disc, thanks to the music, the performers and their instruments.

Johan van Veen

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonata in G (BWV 1021)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704)
Sonata V in E minor (C 142)
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Sonata in A, Op 5/6
Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in E minor (BWV 1023)
Prelude, largo and fugue in C (BWV 545/529)
Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755)
Sonata in E minor (JunP IV,1)
Antonio Bertali (1605-1669)
Ciaccona in C