Notes and Editorial Reviews
6 Solo Partitas
Gunnar Letzbor (vn) (period instrument)
ARCANA 354 (62:51)
Gregory Barnett’s booklet notes and Gunnar Letzbor’s personal reflections tell the story of Johann Paul von Westhoff’s six partitas for solo violin: their possible influence on Westhoff’s early colleague Johann Sebastian Bach, their rediscovery in Péter Várnai in the 1970s, and the mixture of French and Italian elements in their dances. All six follow the established pattern of the suite: Allemande, Courante,
Sarabande, and Gigue—although in these cases, the courantes include movements reminiscent of the Italian corrente, the sarabandes of the non-syncopated Italian form of the dance, and the gigues, of the faster Italian giga. Considering the demands of these partitas, their keys would certainly need to be ones that allow for the use of open strings to facilitate the execution of the chords; they’re successively written in A Minor, A Major, B?-Major, C Major, D Minor, and D Major.
However Barnett and Letzbor might try to distance these works from Bach’s, the distinctive similarities in the two composers’ manner of chordal writing appears in the very first Allemande, which, as does the Adagio from Bach’s First Solo Sonata, strings melodic wire between multivoice fence posts. Letzbor, playing his 19th-century Sebastian Klotz violin (which he played when I heard him perform Bach’s A-Minor Violin Concerto live almost two decades ago) hardly makes this chordally rich writing sound chunky, but allows the melodies to follow their own directions naturally within the thick texture (complicated, apparently, by the idiosyncratic eight-line staff on which Westhoff notated his complex works). He endows the succeeding Courante with the weight of a fugue and plays the Sarabande with intricate rhythmic inflections that make it sound much lighter in weight than its persistent double-stops suggest. Barnett claims that one of the differences between Westhoff’s suites and Bach’s partitas lies in the gigue movements, in which Bach used no double-stops. Westhoff’s Gigue in the First Partita, on the contrary, proceeds at a slower (French) pace, carrying laboriously with it almost polyphonic baggage.
If the Second Partita’s Allemande betrays a bit more breathless chugging (and a certain amount of repetition), that seems to result from the piece’s character rather than from its interpreter. His double-stopping occasionally betrays effort in the Courante, though the Gigue, which he takes at a tempo more challenging than that of the First Partita, suffers no similar difficulties. The Third Partita’s Allemande recalls, if vaguely, the opening of Bach’s Second, A-Minor Sonata; its Sarabande sounds more expressively subtle than anything I’ve heard (except for Bach’s works) from roughly the same period, and melodic figuration toward the end could almost be imported from Bach’s works.
Despite their frequent reliance on multiple-stopping, the partitas don’t always sound polyphonic: the Fourth Partita’s Sarabanda, except the double-stops, presents a sort of melodic idea that the multiple lines enhance rather than embellish with counterpoint. On the other hand, the ensuing Gigue sounds almost fugal, though it certainly isn’t, with voices progressively piling up. The Fifth Partita’s Allemande once again suggests Bach, although not a particular one of his solo sonatas and partitas, while that of the Sixth Sonata bursts into exciting barrages that almost strain the dignified bounds in which these partitas move. The set concludes with an exhilarating reading of the Sixth Partita’s Gigue (which lasts only 46 seconds, presumably because of the edition’s incompleteness).
Throughout, with very few exceptions, Letzbor makes his considerable labor at least sound light and the works’ rhetoric convincing (even, at times, moving); his engineers have captured his chordal writing with a minimum of reverberation to interfere with clarity than the composer already has. Rachel Barton Pine included a very lyrical and cogent performance of Westhoff’s Second Suite (which I preferred to Elizabeth Wallfisch’s more ponderous one on Hyperion CDA67238) in her collection of German music for solo violin (Cedille 90000 078,
28:2), and Pavlo Beznosiuk (sounding more arch and more pointedly rhythmic than does Letzbor) recorded the First, Fourth, and Sixth in his first volume of German works by Walther and Westhoff (Et’Cetera 1224, 32:6). David Boyden’s history of Baroque violin playing hardly mentions Westhoff, but he sounds like the missing link. When, several generations ago, I answered a question on my written comprehensive examinations about the German and Italian influences on Bach’s writing for violin, I unfortunately didn’t know about this connective tissue. Now we all can, and Letzbor’s complete reading can serve as a primary source. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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