Cabinet of Wonders, Vol. 1

Violin sonatas from Pisendel's library in Dresden

Kinga Ujszászi violin, Tom Foster harpsichord
56:52
First Hand Records Lts FHR89
Music by Schreivogel, Vilsmayr & Visconti

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The unusual title stems from the original home of these works, which following the restoration of the Dresden court in 1763 were catalogued and stored in a large cabinet along with some 1500 works by then too antique to be a part of the repertoire. It’s an unusual and fascinating early example of music archivism. Today the collection is housed in the Saxon State and University Library, one of the largest and most significant collections of high Baroque music, where it is known as Schrank II. Much of the archive had originally belonged to the Dresden Kapellmeister Johann Georg Pisendel, who when on his travels was an avaricious collector of music he was either given in manuscript or copied.  

The three composers represented on the present CD all fall into this category, none having any direct connection with the Dresden court. Johann Joseph Vilsmayr (1663-1722) belongs to the central European school of violinist-composers, the most notable of whom was Biber, the teacher of Vilsmayr during his time at the Salzburg archbishopric court. Vilsmayr’s six-movement Partita (Sonata) in E flat follows his master’s style closely, being written for scordatura violin and (a rather simple) continuo. Like Biber’s works of this kind, it employs to the full the fantastic or bizzarie, relishing the careless (in the sense of unfettered freedom). The Prelude, for example, opens with wandering scalic figuration and arpeggiations, while the chances of encountering a more eccentric Passacaglia (iv) must surely be remote. The use of scordatura comes into its own in the Final (vi), which wittily opens in the style of an intrada and also makes use of contrasting dynamics in its echo effects.

Gasparo Visconti (1683-1731) was a pupil of Corelli in Rome, but as a highly gifted young violinist also spent time in London (1702-06), where he published a set of sonatas and a trio sonata. The two sonatas played here are manuscript works (untidily) copied by Pisendel. In his characteristically informative note, Michael Talbot suggests they were written later, possibly dating from the 1720s. The three-movement C-minor Sonata is perhaps the least interesting work on the CD, only the chromatic figuration in the final minuet-type of movement seeming to me to be of much note. The four-movement Sonata in F is another matter, having an opening Andante with appealing descending sequences, a highly expressive Adagio (iii), its attractions enhanced here by judicious use of rubato, and variations on a minuet theme (iv) that include a picturesque chordal fanfare episode.

Talbot suggests the most gifted of the composers represented is the Swiss-born Johann Friedrich Schreivogel (fl.1707-1749), an assessment with which I agree on the evidence here. Three of his sonatas, possibly copied by Pisendel when the two may have met in Venice in 1716-1717, are included here. The finest is arguably the three-movement Sonata in E minor, which opens with a soulful Grave that concludes with an unaccompanied solo violin cadenza and relishes much double-stopping in its lively final Allegro assai. Although in four movements, the D-minor Sonata is the most concise of the three, though the arpeggiated flourishes of the opening movement create a feeling of breadth. The opening Vivace of the Sonata in E flat is a forthright movement, with juicy chords in the violin’s middle register.

The same sonata’s final Allegro, extravagantly decorated, is given an infectious lift, confirming the positive impression made by the performances throughout. My first encounter with the young Hungarian violinist Kinga Ujszászi was five years ago in the finals of the eeEmerging competition at Ambronay as one half of the duo Repico. On that occasion, I found the award of a prize disturbing, since I felt that despite a superb technique she displayed little empathy with the style of the early 17th-century Italian pieces she played. My outspoken observations got me into trouble in certain quarters, so here I’m more than happy to report that Ujszászi’s playing and interpretations strike me as near ideal. The high level of technique needed to play this repertoire is still there in abundance, but it is now wedded to an expressivity in slower music and bowing that seems to me more stylish. The use of rubato noted above is often telling as is the calm purity of tone in such movements as F-minor’s Grave (i). Tom Foster’s continuo support, on a mellow-toned copy by Keith Hill of a Taskin of 1769 tuned to unequal-temperament, is splendid, though there were times when I wondered whether he was exceeding the brief of a continuo player. Such things are however very much a matter of taste.

I don’t honestly think there are any hidden masterpieces in this sector of the cabinet, but those to whom this repertoire appeals – and the majority of the works included are first recordings – certainly cannot go wrong with the performances.

Brian Robins