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J.S. Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas certainly come to mind when we think of repertory for unaccompanied violin. Telemann’s Fantasies, or Biber’s Passacaglia, are also well-known, but who else composed pieces for violin without basso continuo accompaniment in the 17th and 18th centuries?
Baltzar, Vilsmayr and Westhoff
Violinist Thibault Noally presents a recital of solo violin works from a smattering of composers—some more familiar than others. There is the Bach and Biber and Telemann already mentioned, but there are lessor known works as well, such as a solo suite by Westhoff, a partita by Vilsmayr, and a prelude by Baltzar.
Thomas Baltzar moved to England in his late 20’s, bringing with him the German style of playing that exploited the violins capacity for chordal playing, extended positions and scordatura tuning.
Not much of Baltzar’s music survives, but even less remains of Johann Joseph Vilsmayr’s. In fact, the only composition we have by Vilsmayr is his 1715 Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera, a set of six partitas with the indication, à Violino Solo Con Basso bellè imitate. For a long time, these pieces were thought to be incomplete; the bass part was assumed missing or lost. But, recent scholars and performers have adopted the alternate notion that these works were always meant to be unaccompanied—the “con basso bellè imitate” title simply a reference to polyphonic textures in which the violin takes on both treble and bass roles simultaneously.
Another lesser known composer of unaccompanied violin works represented on Noally’s CD is Johann Paul von Westhoff, a musician who likely crossed paths with Bach in 1703 while living and working in Weimar.
All of the solo violin works on Noally’s recording have strong Germanic ties. In the Italian school of violin playing, however, it is far more unusual to find these kinds of unaccompanied works. An exception can be found in the so-called Padua Manuscript that contains Giuseppe Tartini’s Piccole Sonate, (ironically, a large set of over two dozen sonatas).
Violinist Luigi de Filippi performs six of them on his 2012 Challenge Records release.
Interestingly, Tartini does write a bass-line accompaniment for some of the sonatas in the manuscript, especially the earlier ones. And in all of the sonatas, the composer actually leaves a blank staff underneath the melody line—keeping the option open, perhaps, if he wanted to add an accompaniment later. But these bass lines are expressly optional. In a letter to his friend Algarotti, (who worked for Frederick the Great in Berlin), Tartini explained that he notated the sonatas with a bass part for “the sake of convention.” “I play them without bass, “Tartini continued in his letter, “and this is my true intention!”