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Volume 3, no. 1:

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Violin Sonatas. Romanesca (Andrew Manze, violin; Nigel North, theorbo; John Toll, harpsichord and organ). Harmonia Mundi USA, 1996. [HMU 907143.]

Reviewed by Peter Wollny*

1. Schmelzer and His Music

2. The Performances


1. Schmelzer and His Music

1.1 Together with his younger compatriot and assumed student Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer is one of the main exponents of Austrian violin and ensemble music before 1700. Schmelzer, who was born around 1620, entered the Imperial court chapel in 1649 as a violinist and during the next thirty years climbed up step by step in its hierarchy, becoming concert master, vice-Kapellmeister, and finally in 1679 even Kapellmeister of an ensemble that, during that time, was dominated by Italian musicians. As early as 1660, Schmelzer was described as "the most famous and probably the most accomplished violinist in Europe." Four years later, in 1664, he tried to confirm this reputation by publishing a set of six Sonatae unarum fidium seu a violino solo, which appeared with a humble dedication to the then newly appointed cardinal Carlo Caraffa. Schmelzer's sonatas of 1664 have always been regarded by scholars as a landmark in the development of a highly idiomatic and virtuosic violin technique north of the Alps. After the publication of Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli's somewhat dry violin sonatas (Innsbruck, 1660), Schmelzer's works are the first in that genre to be published by a non-Italian composer outside Italy. It is not surprising, however, that the collection is highly indebted to Italian models, most noteworthy to Marco Uccelini's violin sonatas of 1649. Nevertheless, Schmelzer's collection is independent enough from its models to claim more than mere historical interest.

1.2 Despite the recognition of the Sonatae unarum fidium as one of the most influential and innovative collections of the Austrian Baroque and despite their publication in the renowned Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich series (vol. 93, 1958) as well as in the easily accessible Wiener Urtextausgaben of Universal Edition (ed. Friedrich Cerha, Vienna, 1958), the works have hardly ever attracted any players—and consequently no complete recordings of the set has ever been on the market until now. (Schmelzer's ensemble sonatas, on the other hand, have been quite popular, particularly in recent times.) Thus, tracking down recordings even of single sonatas of the Sonatae unarum fidium, requires considerable time and research: Sonata quarta appeared in the late 1950s on one of the first (and nowadays very rare) LPs of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus musicus, while Sonata terza was issued in 1983 by the ensemble London Baroque on an LP entitled Von Venedig nach Wien, which was part of EMI's legendary Reflexe series. In this light the recent recording by Romanesca is most welcome as something truly new.
 

2. The Performances

2.1 The lack of popularity of the Sonatae unarum fidium at first seems somewhat puzzling. It is understandable that in the beginning stages of the early music movement, baroque violinists were not yet capable of mastering the enormous difficulties of Schmelzer's works; this, however, is hardly the case any more. A more serious obstacle lies in the fact that it is an extremely difficult task to revive seventeenth-century virtuosic violin music in a palatable way for the modern ear, to make sense of the highly acrobatic passages, the abrupt changes of tempo, meter, and affect—in other words, to produce a satisfactory listening experience for modern audiences.

2.2 Romanesca has confronted this problem and solved it admirably. Andrew Manze's violin playing is, in addition to its superb technical mastery, both sensitive and colorful. His stylistic empathy with Schmelzer's works is perhaps best represented in the various toccata-like sections, where we can admire both the composer's inventiveness and the performer's imagination. Only occasionally was I struck by Manze's making use of higher positions on the lower strings, which I would consider anachronistic.

2.3 The excellent continuo group contributes to the liveliness of this recording. John Toll frequently alternates between the organ and the harpsichord—even within the same work—and the theorbo is also used as a kind of added register. The alternation of harpsichord and organ within the same piece was—to my knowledge—first introduced about twenty years ago in a famous recording of early Italian violin music by Musica Antiqua Köln, and in recent times has been used quite frequently. There are many advantages to a varied and colorful continuo group, especially with music composed for a solo instrument or voice and especially on sound recordings, where so much of the attraction of a live performance is per force missing. In the case of Schmelzer's violin sonatas, however, I do see one problem (which bothered me somewhat, at least when repeatedly listening to the CD): the high degree of sectionalization in most of the sonatas is reenforced by a too fanciful use of colors in the continuo, which occasionally threatens to break the works apart as artistic unities.

2.4 These are minor points, however. Romanesca has achieved a very fine and historically informed recording of an extremely complex and—in more than one respect—difficult repertoire, which should delight any lover of seventeenth-century violin music. It is to be hoped that more will follow.
 
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*Peter Wollny (wollny@rz.uni-leipzig.de) is a research fellow at the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, coordinating editor for the Neue Bach Ausgabe, and a lecturer at the University of Leipzig.
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