Flights of Fantasy - Early Italian Chamber Music
Dario CASTELLO (1st half 17th C)
Sonata XIV 4, due soprani e due tromboni overo violete [06:37]
Carlo FARINA (c.1604-1639)
Capriccio Stravagante [15:45]
Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Sonata 6 (1656) [05:30]
Biagio MARINI (1594-1663)
Passacaglio 4
Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704)
Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa:
Partia VI [16:14]
Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1671)
Sonata 5 La Fugazza (1671) [04:51]
Dario CASTELLO
Sonata II sopran solo [05:13]
Antonio BERTALI (1605-1669)
Sonata 5 [08:16]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Canzona III (1627/37) [04:23]
Dario CASTELLO
Sonata XVI 4 per stromenti d'arco [06:37]
Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists (Monica Huggett, Claire Duff (violin), Emilia Benjamin (alto viola, lirone, viola da gamba), Alfonso Leal del Ojo (alto viola), Louise Hogan (tenor viola), Sarah McMahon (bass violin), Thomas Dunford (theorbo), Siobhn Armstrong (arpa doppia), Malcolm Proud (harpsichord, organ))/Monica Huggett
rec. 19-21 January 2009, St Peter's Church, Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland. DDD
AVIE AV2202 [78:56]

The title of this disc perfectly expresses the character of Italian instrumental music of the 17th century. In the 16th century the scene was dominated by vocal music in general, and sacred works in particular. This dominance came to an end towards the end of the century, and composers felt free to experiment with textures, harmony, scoring and compositional techniques. The programme on this disc is an amalgam of the various ways composers used their freedom.

Some pieces are close to the style of the late 16th century. The Sonata 6 by Francesco Cavalli, for instance, is dominated by counterpoint, with all parts treated on equal footing. Interestingly, it shows the influence of the Venetian polychoral technique in that it contains several episodes in which high and low strings are juxtaposed. Like Cavalli Giovanni Legrenzi worked in Venice, and his Sonata 5 La Fugazza also has a polyphonic texture. In fact, this piece is pretty close to the consort music which was in fashion around 1600. This kind of music was also held in high esteem in Austria, in particular at the imperial court. Here Antonio Bertali worked from 1631 until his death, since 1649 as Kapellmeister. His Sonata 5 is also rather conservative.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Carlo Farina, who was a virtuosic violinist, and worked at the court of Dresden for a number of years. Several volumes of his music were printed there, and through them he heavily influenced violin playing in Germany. His Capriccio stravagante is his most famous work, in which he uses the string instruments - one violin and two violas - to imitate instruments, like the trumpet and the guitar, or animals, like the cat and the hen. Several composers from Germany and Austria, in particular Johann Jacob Walther and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, followed in his footsteps and frequently included this kind of imitations in their compositions.

The latter also experienced with tunings, and in particular the scordatura. His collection of seven Partias, which were published under the title of Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, show his experiments in this regard. The Partia VI is a brilliant example. Experiments with harmony are also present in the Passacaglio 4 by Biagio Marini, which contains dissonances and chromaticism.

Instrumental effects which were popular in Italy were the echo and the tremolo. These are included in the Sonata II sopran solo by Dario Castello. This is a virtuosic sonata for a solo instrument and basso continuo. The fact that he was a wind player himself explains the fact that the scoring is not specified. It can also be played on, for instance, the cornett. The two other pieces by Castello are ensemble sonatas. The Sonata XIV 4 which opens the programme, is for two treble instruments and two lower instruments; for the latter Castello specified either trombones or violete. Here these parts are played on viola da gamba and bass violin. The disc ends with Castello's Sonata XVI 4. This is specifically scored for strings, and we hear two violins, tenor viola and bass violin.

The inclusion of a keyboard piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi may seem a little odd, but in fact it makes much sense. The likes of Castello and Farina expressed their "flights of fantasy" in instrumental music, Frescobaldi did so in his keyboard oeuvre. Through this he strongly influenced the style of composing in the whole of Europe, and this influence reaches as far as Johann Sebastian Bach.

If one listens to this disc it is easy to understand that composers from above the Alps went southwards to listen and to learn, and that Italian composers who travelled north found open ears for their art. Their music was exciting, full of new ideas and highly experimental, and the way they let their fantasy fly was greatly inspiring. Monica Huggett and their colleagues have found the right way to make this understandable to a modern audience. They let their own fantasy fly, and this results in bold and engaging interpretations. But their performances are always disciplined. That is definitely right, considering the fact that several composers warned for excessive ornamentation. In particular in Fontana's Capriccio stravagante it is tempting to do too much, and to add some effects to those written by the composer. That could easily make a caricature of this piece. But Ms Huggett is too sincere a musician to do so. She and her colleagues use their own great skills at the service of the composers and their skills.

John Cunningham has written excellent programme notes in English, with translations in German and French. The booklet also contains a list of the instruments used in this recording.

Johan van Veen

The Italian composers of the 17th century let their fantasy fly, and so do Monica Huggett and her colleagues.