Violin Masters of the 17th Century
Music for unaccompanied violin, a small but significant part of the instrument’s repertoire, is dominated by Bach’s six towering works, and it’s natural that the period leading up to them should be of particular interest. Elizabeth Wallfisch’s programme puts unaccompanied pieces by Biber, Westhoff and Matteis alongside arrangements of music originally for violin and continuo. The Schmelzer, based, like the Biber, on a four-note descending ground bass, sounds very well unaccompanied, with bass notes added to Schmelzer’s monophonic violin writing to make idiomatic double stopping and chords. With Matteis the arrangement consists simply in playing the violin part on its own; it’s remarkable how complete it sounds, even though one misses the rich sonority given by Matteis’s basso continuo and optional second violin. I was disappointed, though, that another fine Matteis unaccompanied piece from Book 2, the ‘Passagio rotto’, wasn’t included.
Westhoff was a violinist at the Dresden court in the late 1600s. Wallfisch plays five of his six short suites, all using the violin to create more or less continual polyphony. Sometimes there’s a mismatch between Westhoff’s easy melodic invention and his strenuous technical demands, but fortunately Wallfisch has a light touch, able to keep the rhythms buoyant whatever the odds. And if there are occasional roughnesses, this is surely part of the effect, especially in such movements as the earthy Gigue that concludes the Second Suite. Throughout the recital, indeed, Wallfisch’s playing is a model of stylishness, her violin, tuned a tone below modern pitch, producing a mellow, expressive sound.