The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison’s early music duo Ensemble SDG explores the rarely heard music of Johann Georg Pisendel and his Baroque contemporaries with outstanding results. | October 1, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The motto “Soli Deo gloria” (Glory [be] to God Alone) was once a familiar one to musicians, and was used very frequently by J.S. Bach as the sign-off to manuscripts of his sacred works. John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir have created a recording label using this SDG motto.

The Ensemble SDG (below) in Madison consists of violinist Edith Hines and harpsichordist John Chappell (“Chappy”) Stowe. Hines, trained in both period and modern playing at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, among other places, has been serving with the two local orchestras, plus the Madison Bach Musicians and other groups for some years. Stowe is the well-established professor of organ and harpsichord, who is expert in early keyboard music.

They formed this duo in 2009 and have been giving regular concerts here and elsewhere, including at the Boston Early Music Festival. They seem to relish exploring together Baroque music both familiar and unjustly neglected. Their concert on the UW campus on Saturday evening exemplified their collegial enterprise.

The program was an unusually well-focused one. Under the title of “Music of Dresden in the Time of Johann Georg Pisendel,” they sampled the connections and assimilative efforts of a major music center at a pivotal time in late Baroque musical development.

Pisendel (1687-1755) was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, who was a personal friend and colleague. Pisendel travelled extensively, especially in Italy, where he met many masters and absorbed much.

The program opened with a four-movement Sonata in G minor, and closed with a three-movement Sonata in D, adapted from a violin concerto of his own. These two, among his many compositions, show his style as a kind of fusion of Bach and Vivaldi, bringing to his Dresden center a remarkable degree of Italianate passion and exuberance.

Other works were linked to Pisendel and his Dresden world. A four-movement Sonata in B-flat by Tomaso Albinoni (below) was a gift to him from the composer, and possibly composed explicitly for him. A four-movement Sonata in F, Op. 1, No. 7, reveals a French virtuoso striving to sound Italian, with much success. Pisendel copied out this work personally, as part of his exploration of different styles of the moment and their possible interaction.

Most curious was a six-movement Suite in A by the lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss (below, 1686-1750), a Pisendel colleague at Dresden and also a friend of Bach. The latter took this suite, transcribed the lute writing for keyboard, superimposed a violin part on top, and added an opening movement entirely of his own. (For this, Stowe shifted to a “Lautenwerk” harpsichord that parallels lute sound.) In this one could hear the more stiff German style of Baroque Saxony, though perhaps unfairly represented in a work that did not quite crystallize coherently.

The duo brought off this unusual and rarely heard literature with flair. Hines was breathtaking in her command of the wild virtuosity for which Pisendel was famous as a player and which he build into his compositions. In general, her pure, vibrato-less playing took on also, it seemed to me, a new strength and projecting power. And “Chappy,” as always, was the understanding and expert partner.

The usual printed program, be it noted, was augmented by a sheet of extensive and excellent notes on Pisendel and the music.

Once again, the concert proved a reminder of Madison’s vibrant musical life in general, and of its early music scene in particular.

1 Comment »

  1. This was an exceptional concert–beautifully performed, well thought out. Thanks, John Barker, for the accurate and thoughtful comments. Getting to know these unknown composers and their context is very exciting.

    Comment by Mary Gordon — October 1, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

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