Johannes Pramsohler records violin sonatas by Corelli, Telemann, Leclair, Handel & Albicastro
Pramsohler recorded this album with Philippe Grsvard in 2013 on the Audax label, his own, providing for us a “mid-late Baroque” violin recital. As mentioned earlier on this site, Mr. Pramsohler owns the very fine violin perviously owned by Reinhard Goebel. For me, this was one of the reasons for exploring the disc, as this instrument is an extremely nice sounding instrument, with a rich tone. While someone else might buy a recording because it featured a “rare, top-quality Strad,” for all the reasons we’ve heard about why Strads are excellent instruments, that same logic applies here. Although nothing about the cover or inside really takes advantage of this point.
The liner notes, written by Reinhard Goebel, are an interesting collection of words that I struggled with. He looks at violin recitals from a historical perspective, working backward in time, and ultimately pointing to who the potential audience may be. He also traces the “ideas” in Corelli through the works of the other composers, up to Bach (who, to be fair, is not represented here, but is on the duo’s subsequent album, Bach & Entourage, which I have already reviewed).
Goebel seems set against recording collections, and instead, is enamored by the concept of a recital disc. I like both concepts, and I like programming my own recitals (many times, too, that don’t include the same performers). So, what’s to be said about the artists putting their own concert, if you will, together, in a recording?
There’s something there, and I’m not sure these two really get at it in any perceivable way. What they do present are several well-played sonatas. As far as playing goes, some of it is exciting, some of it is clever, and there is a consistency that’s perceivable between tracks, between composers, and between affective devices.
Depending upon how you roll, I’m either blessed or unfortunate to have many of these sonatas already in my own personal catalog. It makes reviewing more challenging, because now I have something to compare this to, with that or in some cases, two of those. I am not certain that Pramsohler and Grisvard are always my favorite in these comparisons, but yet the playing is strong enough to validate having a “second version” of something. The thing I can’t shake is the sound of the violin, to be honest. It’s that one thing that most of the others can’t celebrate.
What follows are my nit-picky issues with each sonata. In the end, I’ll try to summarize those consistencies that I wish were not so consistent, and ultimately, I’m going to recommend this disc.
Corelli Op. 5 no. 1
Arcangelo Corelli’s two most famous opuses were his 5 and 6, violin sonatas (1700) and his concerti grossi. For me, I’ve been collecting more of his opus 5 after my first initial diet of the sonatas performed by Elizabeth Wallfisch on Hyperion. Favorites include the recording by Manze and Egarr (Egarr’s keyboard playing is extra special in that recording on Harmonia Mundi), and the first “half” of Enrico Onofri’s recording.
JP and PG choose good tempi for their Corelli, but I was hoping for a little lighter “touch” on the violin, from the bow hand. Playing multiple notes in the lower range sounds too heavy for me.
Telemann TWV 41:A4 from Musique de Table in A
This is my favorite single piece from Telemann’s Musique de Table collection. It was recorded by Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln so we have a reference for the work. In listening to other complete collections, none of them bettered what Goebel did on DG Archiv.
JP and PG lose steam in this work on the 2nd and 4th movements. The tempi chosen are slower than Goebel’s, but in the sections with repeated figures, things slow down just a tad. JP does a good job of cleanly adding all the ornaments. They take the cadences in the 4th movement for me too slow, especially as nothing special is added to the line to necessitate a slower tempo. JP does add ornaments elsewhere, however, that come off well.
Interesting is how JP has chosen to end the 2nd movement with an upward-reaching arpeggiation; Goebel did the same thing, but went downward. Tongue-in-cheek, I am sure. According to the notes, many of these sonatas were lifted from original scores by the performers. I always admire that.
Jean-Marie Leclair op. 9 no. 10
Born in Lyon, Leclair was known for fusing Italian and French styles successfully in his works. JP and PG I felt could have pushed the two faster movements a little harder with tempo; but for the tempi they adopted they both play very well, with the focus of course on JP nailing all the double stops and alternating between notes played with space and what I’d call more legato sections. I am not sure if these indications are in score or not, but the effect here works well.
The last movement traverses several modulations that I know have to be challenging to play. The entire work is centered around the bizarre key of F# minor, and why anyone would writing something in this key is beyond my understanding—unless you wanted a challenge for the player. There were a few times my face does this little contortion as JP reached the higher range of his instrument, indicating stress in intonation. The only reason I can think that one would write in this key was for some theoretical consideration. Was Leclair after a particular affect using this key, or subjecting the violinist (himself, included) to the challenges of playing in this key? That I won’t know.
It was an interesting choice for these musicians, given the choice of just one Leclair sonata to include. Perhaps they too were looking at key progressions? D maj, A maj, F# min, D maj, and ending in G minor?
Handel: HWV 271 in D
Again, Egarr used a more percussive, biting instrument than PG which I couldn’t help but reference in my mind as I compared this reading to the those by Andrew Manze in his recording of Handel sonatas on Harmonia Mundi. Riccardo Minasi also has recorded this sonata on Deustche Harmonia Mundi (2012). Minasi is a technically strong player, but his recording picked up just a little too much of the mechanical sound from his instrument. JP is of course on a better-sounding instrument, but the intensity with which Minasi performs, not to mention the range of shape he gives to longer notes, is something I wish JP could adapt to his reading. It’s an apt comparison, too, between Manze’s reading of the 3rd movement to JP’s. Manze is more heavy handed with vibrato which I’m not a huge fan of, but his phrasing of the line, to my ears, is so well done. His dynamics, too, are what set the performance apart.
The last movement is calling for dynamic contrasts by the composer himself: but PG doesn’t capitalize upon this enough for my taste. The tempo too between both players is a little uncertain in spots. The Handel sonata under JP felt the least comfortable for this duo.
Albicastro: Variations on La Folia, op. 5 no. 6
My comparison here is a reading by Manfred Kraemer (previously of Musica Antiqua Köln) with Jordi Savall on the Alia Vox label.
The Savall recording from 2005 features harpsichord and cello in the bass. Kraemer is using dynamic variation to great effect in this sonata, “coming and going” from the ensemble who plays upon the regularity of the basso continuo repeating the bass line like tracks outstretched for the travel of a train.
Two minutes or so into the sonata, Albicastro challenges the violinist with double stopping. This is followed by fast bariolage. Both violinists tackle these challenges well.
JP and PG’s recording present the violinist more clearly. JP’s reading in the first section is fine, but it doesn’t carry with it the same playfulness and dynamic range that MK offered in his. JP’s chordal performance in this sonata almost comes across as Thor’s blow with a bowed hammer, the notes across the strings always in good intonation.
It was a good finish to the album, and above all else, JP sounded confident.
What I detect as weaknesses in JP’s playing is consistent across the recording. More dynamic variation would be nice, as would be the ability to dynamically shape longer notes. In this recording, too, I found some unevenness in tempo across a movement, and in a few cases, the use of ritardando in cadences would have been helped with a slightly faster tempo to begin with.
My criticisms are easy to make, however, when I have reference recordings for comparison, some of which I have become quite familiar with and that have influenced my preferences.
All that said, what I detect as “weaknesses” may in fact be deliberate artistic choices made by the performers here. I am not an expert violinist, so these comments are made as what I consider my “preferences” as a listener.
If I take off my critics hat, and likewise, I try to divorce myself of comparisons between other recordings, JP and PG present us with a delicious diet in this recital of significant pieces for violin and BC from a combination of “heavy hitters” and less familiar names which all deserve our listen. And what they present is very well executed and musically satisfying. I like this recording and I look forward to more from Pramsohler and colleagues. Despite believing there are small areas for improvement, I’m looking forward to these musicians’ next collaboration.