Pure - Bach in Italy
What first caught my attention in this new album featuring violinist Jonas Zschenderlein and harpsichordist Alexander von Heißen was the relative young age of the duo. More research revealed the duo are recent graduates, specializing in baroque repertoire on baroque instruments. And rather than record one collection, the album is to be conceived as a concert, combining the disparate works of Corelli, Montanari, J.S. Bach, and von Westhoff. You can also find a video of their performance (seemingly separate from this actual recording, but of the same works) in a church setting. Some sleuthing puts Zschenderlein at only 21 years of age at the time of the recording.
Their age to me is important.
To these two, they strike a particular importance to how the record was made and engineered. I’m less influenced by this, and feel it’s used to explain some of the recording’s blemishes.
Both players work well together and are technically very competent players. This opinion is only bolstered in watching videos of them perform. And it of course speaks to landing a record deal at such a young age.
(The duo also perform in a quartet format adding recorder and cello in an ensemble called 4 Times Baroque. They too record for Deustche Harmonia Mundi.)
Zschenderlein is captured closer in the recording; in a piece such as the Corelli, his fast movements don’t seem to present themselves quite as written; their Vivace movements, for instance, feel somewhat leisurely, but then, taken any faster, we might miss out on the generous supply of ornaments that they add. The final Allegro is the fastest of the movements. It’s easy to let the music wash over you, but getting into the details of articulation, it’s well done.
The further I go into their albums the more I like the lower register of Zschenderlein’s instrument. The Montanari piece goes down low enough to tickle us. The composer’s style comes to the foreground in the final gigue, performed solo. There’s a real reason to have the violinist reach down for those low notes, it provides a pseudo basso continuo support, harmonically speaking. I compared this recording to that by Riccardo Minasi, who exhibits far more “control” in his performance. But both are exciting and extrovert in style. The difference is here, which is likewise most easily compared in the final movement of the von Westhoff, is an almost youthful exuberance. Zschenderlein pushes the instrument hard, extracting from it significant reverb when he wants, in addition to pushing so hard the instrument goes out of tune. For a rock musician jamming on a guitar, we wouldn’t think anything of it. And in a performance, just maybe. But it seems to me this over-exuberant style isn’t going to last well once we’re over how talented and extrovert these young musicians can be.
The two players present solo performances too from Bach. For von Heißen, it’s the Toccata, BWV 912. He’s far more reserved in his playing than his friend on violin. Please don’t read that as boring. He’s an engaging player that exhibits a nice balance between technical precision and appropriate feeling. My only wish in his solo recording was that they’d moved the microphones closer; it sounds as if they left everything in place, and the distance between the microphones and instrument don’t portray him in the strongest, most transparent light.
Zschenderlein’s recording of the Gigue from BWV 1004 is his solo contribution, and interestingly, is engaging, and very much in close aesthetics to his other pieces, without going too far. It’s almost as if there’s a little more respect for the Bach.
The Bach Sonata BWV 1019 is also an interesting but logical choice; it gives another opportunity for us to hear von Heißen alone. His work with ornaments is very tight. An engaging listen!
At first, I considered their tempo for the outer movements too slow, just as I did for the Corelli; they ultimately don’t disappoint, however, the introduction of ornaments in the violin part is teasingly refreshing.
Von Westhoff must have been an interesting violinist. It’s attractive to assume that Bach had some awareness of his compositional art. I was somewhat disappointed in their opening movement of his sonata, I’ve heard more convincing interpretations of this opening. That said, the remainder is very strong. The tour de force is the finale. It’s a real showman’s piece and here Zschenderlein’s ability with very accurate intonation is met with aplomb; the energy and intensity, however, gets the best of him.
Yes, I like the energy and enthusiasm. I just wish that they’d considered restraining it a bit. There’s no need to over-stress the strings of his instrument to the point where they go out of tune. So much pressure and so much rosin can be too much.
Thankfully the movement is short.
On my copy of the iTunes version is included a bonus track, a re-recording of the middle movement of the von Westhoff with guitar and violin. It comes off as jazzy and delicious.
I have little doubt all musicians involved in this recording have an outstanding future ahead of them. This is a strong debut.