“Flights of Fantasy: Early Italian Chamber Music” = DARIO CASTELLO: Sonata decimaquarta à 4; Sonata Seconda; Sonata decima sesta; CARLO FARINA: Capriccio Stravagante; CAVALLI: Sonata à 6; BIBER: Harmonia Artificiosa Partia VI; LEGRENZI: La Fugazza: Sonata à 5; ANTONIO BERTALI: Sonata à 5; FRESCOBALDI: Canzona Terza – Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists / Monica Huggett – Avie AV2202, 78:56 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:
JOHANN ADAM REINCKEN: Hortus Musicus Vol. 1: Partitas I, II, IV, VI – Stylus Phantasticus / Friederike Heumann – Accent ACC 24217, 59:43 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:
These two discs supply an engaging history lesson, as well as some enjoyable listening. “Flights of Fantasy” is an apt title for the recording from the Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists, but it also applies in some measure to the music of Johann Reincken, an adherent of the stylus phantasticus, which not coincidentally is the name of the group that plays his partitas. Introduced in solo instrumental music at the start of the seventeenth century, the stylus phantasticus is a type of music-making that put a premium on free expression, and that translates into episodic works in which short passages of widely differing emotional content follow one another—for example a lively virtuosic section followed by a subdued, lamenting or longing one. Another feature of the style is the use of basso ostinato figures as a source of harmony—a prominent feature of Reincken’s work and one that he may have transmitted to Johann Sebastian Bach.
Since the stylus phantasticus was an Italian invention and since what happened musically in Italy eventually found its way throughout the continent, it’s no surprise that the stylistic trait shows up in a number of the Italian composers featured on the first disc, especially the works of Frescobaldi, Castello, and Bertali. In their emotionally wrought slow movements, many of these Italian masters of the early Baroque turn to vocal music as the source of inspiration. The sighs and swoons in the slow music of Castello’s sonatas recall very vividly the same emotional effects in the madrigals of Monteverdi or Gesualdo. That’s true as well in the one solo work in the program, Frescobaldi’s ifor harpsichord. Mantuan Carlo Farina and Mantuan Antonio Bertali show the clear influence of the antiphonal choral works of the Gabrielis, as does Francesco Cavalli, but then he was an opera composer, so the influence of vocal music on his instrumental works is not surprising.
Formally, most of the works on the Avie disc are also involved in solidifying the sonata tradition, specifically the sonata di chiesa, or church sonata, which as the name implies was considered suitable for liturgical use. Church sonatas alternated a series of slow and fast movements; eventually, the accepted practice was four movements in the pattern slow-fast-slow-fast. None of the sonatas on the current disc are as rigid as all that. Some start with fast movements, and all have more—some many more—than four movements, which conforms to the idea of the stylus phantasticus, which implies an episodic construction. Whether slow or fast, the first movement of a church sonata was usually fugal in nature, and so it is here.
These works also chart the development of the trio sonata, which usually employed two treble instruments—in these pieces, two violins—plus continuo. Some composers added an independent bass instrument to the mix, such as a bass violin or viola da gamba, which is true of Castello and Legrenzi. The main thrust of the trio sonata was not virtuoso show but sort of a rivalry among equals, as the treble and bass instruments harmonize or become involved in canonic chatter back and forth.
Sonata is not the only form explored here. Biagio Marini, one of the pioneers of the solo violin sonata, contributes a passacaglia, a series of variations that become increasingly daring harmonically as the piece develops. And Carlo Farina proves that musical influence didn’t go all one way in the seventeenth century. He ended up at the Court of Dresden, where he apparently picked up the idea of including special effects in his Capriccio Stravaganza. Farina uses dissonances, glissandi, and col legno effects to mimic an assortment of sounds such as the meowing of cats, the firing of guns, and the scraping/droning folk instruments such as fiddles and bagpipes. Bohemian composer Heinrich Biber carries on the tradition, adding his own special wrinkle, scordatura tuning. Partita VI from his Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa is the best-known music here; heard in the context of the other music on this disc, it’s clear how much Biber follows the course mapped by Italian instrumental composers.
The same could be said of the partitas from J. A. Reincken’s Hortus Musicus (“Musical Garden”). Published in Hamburg in 1688, the partitas follow the form that was standard right through the High Baroque—that is, a suite of dance movements in the following order: allemande, courant, sarabande, and gigue. However, each partita starts with a sonata based closely on Italian models. Most of the sonatas start with a slow, expressive first section followed by a fugal fast section. In a twist, these two sections are succeeded by alternating slow and fast sections assigned to solo instruments, first the violin and then the viola da gamba, creating an interesting variation on the sonata di chiesa and optimizing textural variety, as well as allowing for virtuoso display.
The partitas that come after the sonata openings embrace the two definitions of the term: they are both a suite of dances and a series of variations on a single theme. So Reincken has it both ways, producing works with great internal cohesion as well as variety of texture and tempo. Each of the partitas ends with a gigue in the form of a “permutation fugue.” Viola da gambist and director Friederike Heumann explains: “two themes are played without episodes. . .and in the second section of the Gigue the theme is heard again in inversion in all parts.” She goes on to say that the musicians of Stylus Phantasticus had a variety of opinions about this fairly rigid architectural design. I found the gigues short and lively enough that I didn’t object at all. Chaque à son goût, I suppose. At any rate, I second Ms. Heumann in recognizing influences that would later show up in the works of Bach. She mentions the harmonic ostinato figures in the slow movements of Reincken’s sonatas. I wonder if Bach didn’t learn something from Reincken’s tightly argued fugal writing in the guise of a lively dance; I hear an anticipation of the fugal finales of the Brandenburgs in Reincken’s gigues.
Both these discs offer much to savor and think upon. The playing on both is of a uniformly high order. The Irish Baroque Orchestra players obviously enjoy themselves in the whimsical Farina and Biber numbers, where virtuosity of a special sort is called for, and they point up the vocal-music roots of these instrumental pieces most tellingly. Stylus Phantasticus is called on to do more in the way of virtuoso turns, as well as address the emfindsamkeit of Reincken’s mellow adagios, which they do in spades. Bravo to all hands involved!
The booklets, too, provide keys to an understanding and enjoyment of the music, the notes to the Avie recording sober and scholarly, Heumann’s notes to the Accent recording engagingly chatty, going on about Reincken’s moral lapses and rivalries, as well as explaining the biblical and polemical references behind the composer’s “Musical Garden” conceit. (His Hortus Musicus is a musical Garden of Eden from which he bans all “incompetent, highly injurious people” who don’t have the ears to hear the perfect beauty of his creation.)
Both discs offer fine sound, but Accent wins on this score, capturing a wider and deeper sound stage and affording more presence to the continuo, especially the lambent strains of the positive organ. For lovers of the Baroque, these two discs should provide invaluable insights into the development of musical forms in the period.
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