CASTELLO Sonatas: No.1 à sopran solo; Nos. 7, 8 à due. FONTANA Sonatas: Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 à violino solo; Nos. 9, 10, 12 à due • John Holloway (vn); Lars Ulrik Mortensen (hpd); Jane Gower (dulcian) (period instruments) • ECM 2106 (71:22)
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The early 17th century must have been an exciting time for a musician to be alive and active in Italy. One only has to think of the tremendous musical strides that were taking place simultaneously throughout the country: Florentine monody, Venetian cori spezzati, and especially the new style of instrumental music centered on that most Italian of instruments, the violin. The music of Giovanni Battista Fontana (d.1630), Giovanni Paolo and Andrea Cima (fl. early 17th century), Francesco Turini (c.1589–1656), and especially Dario Castello (fl. early 17th century) shows a bold, adventurous new spirit that epitomized the vanguard of European music, and points the way to later works of Corelli, Vivaldi, and the rest. This “modern style” of music is fairly well represented on CD; the wealth of excellent recordings, mostly on period instruments, is in inverse proportion of the scant amount of biographical information on these composers. I’m thinking in particular of an excellent two-CD set that Monica Huggett and the Sonnerie Ensemble recorded for Virgin Veritas in 1996 (Fontana, Cima, Turini); that set also featured the extraordinary cornetto player Bruce Dickey, who has been at the helm of two other notable groups, Concerto Castello and Concerto Palatino. As the name suggests, Concerto Castello dedicated itself to reawakening interest in Castello’s music and gave some of the very first performances in the modern era. The group consisted of violin, cello, cornetto, tenor trombone, and basso continuo, and exemplified, to my way of thinking, the perfect instrumentarium for this music.
John Holloway is an acclaimed Baroque violinist who has been the concertmaster of several important London period-instrument orchestras, chief among them Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players. For the past 15 years or so he has been making records for Munich-based ECM Records, having been featured on many if not most of that label’s early-music releases. One of Holloway’s first releases on ECM was his recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas; it was praised by Robert Maxham in Fanfare 30:4. Holloway’s frequent collaborator is the noted Danish harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen; together they have recorded the complete chamber music of Buxtehude on three CDs for Marco Polo, later reissued on Naxos. Here they are joined by Jane Gower, a London-based bassoonist and dulcian player.
Dulcian would not have been my first choice for the bass line of these sonatas; its gruff voice is tonally at odds with Holloway’s light, silky tone. This is not to disparage Gower’s skill or prowess on the dulcian; she is clearly the technical equal of Holloway, but I would have preferred the sound of a cello or gamba. Be that as it may, the combination of violin, dulcian, and continuo evokes a powerful image of how this music might have been performed in the houses of the Venetian or Roman nobility, or perhaps in San Marco on an important church holiday. Holloway’s playing is replete with the virtues we have come to expect of him: expressive freedom, surety of technique and intonation, and stylistic awareness. Throughout, he seems to be having immense fun with the music, particularly in the three freewheeling sonatas of Castello, here divided so that the first and second movements of each open and close the program. Holloway plays a modern-day Amati copy, and if I understand the liner notes correctly, the lowest strings (G and D) are uncovered, which produces an intriguing sound in the low register. Mortensen is an able partner, and plays an Italian copy by Matthias Kramer with a suitably salty sound.
Ultrarealistic sound, extensive liner notes, and ample timing combine to produce a first-class release.