Carolin Widmann, Stephan Mai / Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Handel, Pisendel, Mendelssohn, Bach

Zurich, St.Peter’s Church, 2016-03-15

4-star rating

2016-03-18 — Original posting
2016-10-09 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents


Orchestra & Venue

In this concert, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO) did not play in its “ordinary” venues, such as the Tonhalle in Zurich or its own “home venue” the “ZKO House” in Zurich-Tiefenbrunnen. This concert took place under the barrel vault of the baroque Church St.Peter. This is one of four historic churches of the medieval town of Zurich. It is the only parish church among these; the others were parts of local monasteries. It is now known for the biggest church clock face(s) in Europe.

For this concert on a wet, dark Tuesday evening in March, the church was well occupied, but not sold out. It was a concert illustrating a large number and variety of interesting cross-relations between composers and their works. It all appeared to center around the term “baroque”, for which this church as a concert venue was the ideal framework.

Direction — Stephan Mai

The orchestra played standing (with the obvious exceptions), in front of the church choir, with 5 + 4 violins, 4 violas, 2 cellos, double bass and harpsichord. The artists used late baroque bows (and presumably gut strings). In this concert, the orchestra played under the direction of Stephan Mai from the position of concertmaster.

Stephan Mai was born 1953 in Leipzig, where he also studied up till 1976. This is the place where Bach spent the largest part of his professional life.

After his studies, he became member of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. He also took part in the formation of an ensemble specializing in historically informed playing (initially with modern instruments). In 1982, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin emerged out of this ensemble. To this day, Stephan Mai is one of its concertmasters.

Soloist — Carolin Widmann

The soloist in this concert was the violinist Carolin Widmann, born 1976 in Munich. For her Wikipedia entry see here.

Carolin Widmann studied with Igor Ozim in Cologne, later with Michèle Auclair in Boston, and with David Takeno in London. Since 2006 she is teaching violin at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” in Leipzig. She is also pursuing an international career as soloist. Carolin Widmann has played with numerous well-known conductors, orchestras and chamber music partners. She is covering a wide repertoire from contemporary music back to early music played on original / period instruments. Carolin Widmann plays a violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini from 1782, with gut strings, and using a late baroque bow.

The printed program consisted of four compositions:

G.F. Handel: Concerto grosso in D minor, op.6/10

In 1739, George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) published his popular collection of 12 Concerti grossi, op.6. This is a series of concerti for string orchestra and basso continuo. Mostly, one or two violins form a “concertino“, more like solo orchestral voices, not nearly as virtuosic as in a “proper” violin concerto. Out of these concerti, the Concerto grosso in D minor, op.6/10, HWV 328, is essentially a baroque dance suite, even though none of the movements is a typical suite element, such as Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue. Instead, the movements are

I. Ouverture (4/4, repeated) — Allegro (6/8) — Lentement (4/4)
II. Air: Lento (3/2)
III. Allegro (4/4, two parts, each repeated)
IV. Allegro (3/4)
V. Allegro moderato (4/4, 2 parts, each repeated) — [Double] (2 parts, each repeated)

The Performance

The orchestra played this with light and soft articulation and very good coordination, but never really loud, shrill or coarse, allowing the string sound to mold into the acoustics of the venue, to form an ideal mix with the gentle reverberation: even the softest pp still felt warm and always “substantial” enough. The concertino was formed by Stephan Mai and Carolin Widmann.

The first movement is a typical French Overture, in which the double punctuations were kept short, but never harsh. Obviously, the ensemble is well familiar with baroque articulation and ornamentation (I was happy to note that “belly notes” were avoided!).

The subsequent fugato section (Allegro) sounded soft, yet very transparent (again well-adapted to the acoustics of the venue), modeling gentle arches in dynamics.

The middle movement (Allegro, 4/4) was so light as to reminding me of the flight of butterflies, and the subsequent Allegro in 3/4 time is mostly homophonic in the ripieno section, the two violins in the concertino doing canon-like imitations; the ending of the movement scurries away in the softest of ppp. This was capturing, almost enforcing the utmost attention by the audience.

The last movement, Allegro moderato, is probably the most well-known in this concerto grosso: an excellent melodic invention with springy staccato articulation, with the concertino playing colla parte. The movement is doubled up with a variation of the first part, the violins now playing semiquavers throughout: very nice music, overall, and an excellent opening to a concert under the label “baroque”!

J.G. Pisendel: Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor

Johann Georg Pisendel (1687 – 1755) was an almost exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). He was born near Nuremberg, net Bach and Telemann, and spent major parts of his career as Capellmeister in Dresden, leading the Dresden Court Orchestra. Pisendel was well-respected by Bach — certainly as a violinist. As a composer, he left behind a small number of works, among them 10 violin concertos, 4 concertos for orchestra, and 2 sonatas for violin. In this concert, Carolin Widmann played Pisendel’s Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor. That’s a solo sonata with three movements:

  1. [Largo], 4/4
  2. Allegro, 3/4
  3. Giga, 6/8 — [Double, 6/8]

With the exception of the initial Largo, all movement are in two parts, both with repeat marks.

This is an absolutely amazing composition, particularly in its first movement: it feels rhythmically free, maybe not unorganized, but at the very least irritating, almost chaotic. It is experimental also in its harmonic course. In its musical language, there are moments that seem to allude to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But then, there are also parts that rather remind of (or seem to anticipate) the solo sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931). These were written 1923! In fact, Pisendel’s Largo appears harmonically so much advanced that inexperienced listeners must have a hard time judging the purity of the intonation! The subsequent movements — Allegro and Giga — are more “regular” in the harmony and their rhythmic structure. However, they are still far ahead of their time (and of Bach’s solo sonatas), and technically very demanding.

The Performance

The third movement is followed by a “double“, labeled “variations”, featuring the “substance” of the Giga, but “ornamented” / altered using scales. Some violinists play the two double parts in lieu of the repeats in the Giga; Carolin Widmann performed the first part of the Giga with repeat, the second part without, and then the “variations” without the repeats. She played masterfully, and with a firm sense for the intonation, but without trying to push the tone of the instrument. Carolin Widmann was relying on support by the acoustics, with an often lucid, singing tone (e.g., in the Giga), but also allowing for soft, intimate passages (e.g., in the octave echoes in the Allegro).

Some violinists may be tempted to use vibrato to soften the intonation and the contrasts (and maybe trying to hide uncertainties in the intonation?!); Carolin Widmann played essentially without any vibrato, which makes the intonation even more demanding and also tends to highlight dissonances. To me, this was a very interesting musical encounter and discovery!

F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: String Symphony No.13 in C minor

At age 14 (1823), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) — then living in Berlin — wrote his “String Symphony” No.13 in C minor (MWV N 14). This is also known as “Symphony Movement” (Sinfoniesatz), as it consists of a single, two-part movement. It follows a set of 12 string symphonies that the composer had written in the course of the two preceding years. Superficially, this might seem out-of-place in a concert with baroque music. However, Mendelssohn was instrumental to the revival of baroque music in the first half of the 19th century. Further, in this movement, he was digesting the music of George Frideric Handel that he had encountered and studied. This is indeed a baroque French Overture, with a dramatic, double-punctuated introduction, followed by a complex five-part fugue on three (!) themes.

The Performance

The introduction was accentuated, but light, never harsh, and with nice cantilenas. The fugue was flowing at a measured pace, playfully, light and dance-like in the first theme. There was more portato in the second theme, and only in the third theme, the ensemble added more drama, a rougher tone and temperament. The orchestra formed long arches, full of tension, and an enthralling, rhythmic, homophonic ending. This anticipates the strongly motoric aspect of many of Mendelssohn’s later works.

An interesting question here: how does one perform this “historically correctly”? The “baroque way”? Or in early romantic style? The ideal, I think, would be the way Mendelssohn heard them with his inner ear. Of course, we have no idea what exactly this was, descriptions of how these symphonies were played probably don’t exist, nor of course any recordings, hence essentially we cannot know! Handel had died 3 Generations earlier, so presumably, the notion of “historically correct, baroque playing” (even just as we know it now, 200 additional years later) must have (almost) vanished in 1823, orchestras were using more modern instruments. This obviously was very much a baroque performance — in my opinion a compelling one:, one that made me ignore considerations of baroque vs. romantic style playing.

J.S. Bach: Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052R

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) wrote a series of harpsichord concertos. Most of these, Back may have created for his harpsichord-playing sons. Some are original compositions, others are “translations” from concertos for other instruments (such as his violin concertos, etc.). Yet others may include material that Bach had used in other works. Conversely, music from some of the concertos may have been re-used in other works, such as in cantatas.

Probably, the most well-known harpsichord concerto is the one in D minor, BWV 1052. Most people today will know this from performances on a modern piano. For many years, people suggested that the D minor concerto originally was a concerto for violin. The texture of its solo part is distinctly different from that of the “proper” harpsichord concertos. It seems to remind of pattern from violin music of that period.

The idea of playing BWV 1052 on the violin has been around for decades: I remember attending a concert in 1972 where Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) played this in Zurich (in a concert with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra under its founder, Edmond de Stoutz, in the “Theater 11”). Menuhin’s technique was already falling apart at that time. I remember that as encore he played (not very well, sadly) one or two movements from the Partita in E major for solo violin.

Meanwhile, the violin version has gained “official status”. Musicology now refers to it as Violin concerto in D minor, BWV 1052R (where the “R” stands for “reconstructed”). The concerto features three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro

A Link to Mendelssohn?

Stephan Mai gave an eloquent and entertaining introduction for this concerto. Very likely, Mendelssohn has known Bach’s harpsichord concerto in D minor. The manuscript was among the belongings of his great-aunt in Berlin. That great-aunt had been a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710 – 1784).

Johann Sebastian Bach has also used parts of this concerto in his Cantata BWV 146, “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (“We must enter the realm of God through lots of adversities”). The first movement became the Sinfonia. The slow movement became the opening choir “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal…”.

Not everybody seems to be convinced that BWV 1052 originally was a violin concerto. Also Stephan Mai and Carolin Widmann have their doubts, as the solo part appears not to be very “violin-friendly”.

The Performance

On the other hand, how Carolin Widmann performed in this concert was definitely not casting doubts about the viability of the violin version. She played the first movement with drive / momentum, with very vivid agogics, with rhythmic dilatations and contrasting accelerandi. Her playing full of tension, expanding the dynamics down to ppp. Some of this may have sounded somewhat peculiar in comparison to “conventional” / more traditional performances. However, at least to me, it was absolutely convincing as a violin concerto.

The vitality in the first movement was also present in the final Allegro. This was never static, but enthralling music, in which the solo violin clearly was the driving force.

The middle movement is a wonderful Adagio. It featured an intense, lamenting melody line in the solo part, with excellent ornamentation. I found this much, much more emotional than any performance on a harpsichord, let alone a modern concert grand. Philological arguments can’t talk more convincingly for the violin version than Carolin Widmann’s performance, particularly through the projecting sound of such a precious instrument!

Note, however: fans of a traditional, “grand” and dense violin sound with lots of (permanent) vibrato (as produced and cultivated by the great virtuosos around the middle of the last century) might have found Carolin Widmann’s playing “frugal”, if not sometimes even “raw” or rough. Playing without vibrato is far more colorful in intervals and harmonies. At the same time, it is also more direct, critical and demanding in the intonation! This is particularly true in a live concert performance in a (moderately) heated church, and when using gut strings that have a tendency to fall out of tuning in the course of a concerto as long as BWV 1052.

Encores, Conclusion

As if the artists wanted to add an argument against performing the D minor concerto on the violin, they selected the Andante from Johann Sebastian Bach‘s “proper” Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, as encore. Once more we heard a compelling performance — except maybe for the continuo bass, which was a bit too strong and dominant in this movement. However, to me, it still was not convincing enough as an argument against BWV 1052 on the violin.

Overall, this concert was an enriching and interesting experience — definitely worth attending!


For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

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