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Expressive simplicity

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Reinhard Goebel about the splendor and misery of the violin recital

Text by Reinhard Goebel. This essay was first published in Audax' very first album: Sonatas for violin and continuo by Corelli, Telemann, Handel, Leclair, and Albicastro - with Johannes Pramsohler (violin) and Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord).

Once upon a time, in the days when lawyers, physicians, and professors still used to personally play the violin in the evenings and on weekends, that is to say, not all that long ago, when there were still smaller concert halls and reasonable fees and not every concert was blown up into a mega event, when Stainer and Amati were not just encountered in crossword puzzles, but could be experienced live on the stage, back then there was the – now almost legendary – violin recital: only two musicians and a grand piano on the stage ...

At one time the participating musicians were Busch & Serkin, Flesch & Schnabel, Grumiaux & Clara Haskil – for some strange reason the violinist was always named first, followed by the name of the musician at the piano, a curious decision inasmuch as the vast majority of the compositions performed by this duo originated from the quill of a composing pianist and was inevitably designated as “pour le Pianoforte & le Violon obligé,” for piano and violin ...

In the course of time, the order of the program became ritualized in as far as the “Kreutzer” Sonata – which received and also retained its dreadful-kitschy name when the whole world already knew that the French-German violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer had never played the work and moreover found it horrible – was always heard at the conclusion and had been preceded by at least one of Brahms’s three violin sonatas.

The lawyers, physicians, and professors in the audience did not particularly like innovations at the ends of concerts, not to mention the unstoppable intrusion of more modern repertoires: they could not really judge the sonatas by Ravel and Bartók – at first they could not even play such works, since they of course lacked the “model for interpretation,” and one could also not hum along very easily ... What were the golden words with which old master Furtwängler expressed the general mental and emotional state with regard to “modern” music: “We shall adopt modern music, if it wants us to. It is up to the music to convince us.” Incidentally, Furtwängler himself composed, quite certainly as a way to come even closer than he already was to Brahms and Beethoven. But in spite of his influential position in the Third Reich, nobody wanted to play his fifty-five-minute-long, hopelessly unconvincing Sonata for Piano and Violin!

Yet, it was not only music for piano and violin that was heard the entire evening long, for violinists also used the recital – after the great Joseph Joachim had, around 1850, initially gained this latitude – to proffer their Bach solo sonatas, which provided the attendant lawyers, physicians, and professors (who on such occasions displayed their profound connoisseurship – in contrast to the plebs, who came to the concert merely for pleasure – by delving into the considerably reduced facsimile published by the Insel Publishing House, which they had brought from home in order to monitor the authenticity of the performance) with enough to talk about both during the intermission as well as on the walk home. Aside from the fact that no “piano accompanist” ever came up with the idea of presenting a composition for piano “without violin” in such a duo program, Joachim’s venture resulted in a huge amount, indeed a veritable mountain of virtuoso literature for violin solo, whose composers more or less felt obliged to take Bach as their model: there was hardly a composer who did not attempt to offer the then violin protagonists a solissimo work that – so Carl Flesch – “appears to have been written in touching ignorance of the nature of violin technique ...”.

Astonishing in view of the verifiable antipathy toward the truly contemporary repertoire – strictly speaking, the Brahms violin sonatas were also modern at the time of their composition – is the liberty with which the “old-classical” Baroque repertoire, that is to say, the violin sonata with basso continuo, was integrated into such programs. If we might assume now that the year 1700 represented a final border, the programs of Alma Moodie and Adolf Busch show us that one was not even afraid of the sonatas of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, that the chaconnes of Vitalino (Tomaso Antonio Vitali) were just as popular as Tartini’s Trille du diable and Jean-Marie Leclair’s Le Tombeau, that Corelli’s Follia in the monstrous-thundering “concert arrangement with cadenza” by Hubert Léonard was just as much everyday fare as Handel’s “great” D-Major Sonata, that one listened to Bach’s six Sonatas for Violin “& Cembalo certato,” BWV 1014–1019, and an innocent sonata by Senaillé, as well as to the Passacaglia by Biber-Rostal or a forgery by Pugnani-Kreisler. Even the tough L’Arte del Arco by Tartini was performed by courageous violinists as late as 1970!!

Splendor and misery of the violin recital, which at the leading festivals became more and more marginalized as “Matinée at 11 o’clock,” thus landing between breakfast and lunch, was for the professors, physicians, legal advisers, and other “musical guardians” the imperative confirmability of that which was performed: everything done by the duo up on the stage had to be available in “practical editions,” was judged, and, above all, imitated with increasingly tendentious fingerings and bowing marks. But with the blossoming of historicism in music – the argumentative, “zwischenschaftlichen” [untranslatable play on words – Transl.] performance practice and the philologically correct editions of music without fingerings and bowing marks – and under the compulsions of the market for recorded music in which “mixed programs” were considered to be difficult to sell, the traditional violin recital “from Biber to Bartók” passed away once and for all, and all the grandiose individual pieces and sonatas of the Baroque – with the exception of Bach’s solo sonatas as “audition pieces” – disappeared from the violin curriculum.

At most, they are available today in a “complete recording,” that is to say, in an extremely heterogeneous environment that sometimes – as in the case of Handel’s sonatas, which are preserved only as individual pieces – was not even intended by the composer, but was created only in the twentieth century, or in an environment that consciously offers rather light fare together with magnificent art, as is certainly the case in Jean-Marie Leclair’s four books of sonatas, but which in both cases hardly does justice to the value of a work in its uniqueness – this is also true of the “historically informed” performers who are probably more interested in the “discovery of the whole”!

Today, we might find it “inappropriate” to have to listen to works that were composed between 1700 and 1900 performed by the same two performers on one and the same instrumentarium. Yet, in terms of the violin, the general demarcation between the Classical and Romantic periods at Arcangelo Corelli is congenial, intelligible, and comprehensible. After all, it was he, the Roman master, who understood how to give the out-of-hand–bizarre forms of the late seventeenth century, the continual up and down on the fingerboard, the back and forth across the strings, and the almost neurotic search for astonishing effects an assured serenity of expression and balance of form and content that was admirable, and that was to remain so into the early nineteenth century.

It was absolute understandable to venerate him as the doyen of the sonata, although the “invention” of this convincingly clear, four-movement form is not to be found in op. 5, the five- and six-movement Sonate a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo of 1700, but rather in the Sonate da chiesa, the trio sonatas op. 1 and op. 2, published in 1681 and 1689, respectively. That Corelli once again fell back behind his own ideal of the serene four-movement form in the solo violin sonatas of op. 5 certainly had to do with the necessary demonstration of his violinistic artistry and virtuosity: the theatrical entry in the opening sonata ultimately refers to the polykinetic sweeping blows of his rival Biber, whose sonatas from 1681 were still the “measure of all things.” Corelli’s answer to the Salzburg master’s never-ending cascades is nevertheless subtle and tasteful, for after a few bars of runs and fripperies he comes to the main objective of his own violin playing: expressive simplicity.

The generally obligatory legacy of Corelli’s “da chiesa” œuvre until ca. 1750 was that the two opening movements of a sonata were to be in strict, fugal style – as Handel shows in his D-Major Sonata HWV 371, an individual piece from the 1740s. And if this was not possible due to the composer’s general gallant refusal, it then nevertheless had to be serious, rather than dance-like – as Telemann displays in the Solo in A Majortaken from the second part of the Musique de table of 1733.

Generally, the dictum “Finis Coronat Opus” was in the air: already in 1682 the early Corelli-adept Georg Muffat crowned his Armonico Tributo with an extensive passacaglia, while Biber concluded his main violin work, the sonatas published in 1681, with a sonata for two violins played on one violin, and the personal-intimate, unpublished cycle of Mystery Sonatas from the mid 1670s with a passacaglia for solo violin that is still played today. Corelli decided to end the rather conventional second part of his op. 5 sonatas with a folia variation: it was obvious to every attentive observer that an ostinato variation was the non plus ultra of a cycle – and it is perceived to be exactly that to the present day. The turbulent Corelli-pupil Francesco Maria Veracini concluded his 1744 Sonate Accademiche with a fireworks of ciaconna and passacaglia, Caldara his trio sonatas, op. 1, with a modulating ciaconna, while Vivaldi’s op. 1 from 1705, the Sonate a tre, and Albicastro’s solo sonata cycle of 1703 each end with a folia and thus show that the reception of Corelli’s works was by no means “a question of the time,” but was of extreme topicality and importance. One should not neglect to mention that Corelli’s most receptive pupil was Johann Sebastian Bach – nobody knew THAT better than Bach himself!


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