Romanesca (Nigel North, Andrew Manze, John Toll) perform works by Pandolfi, Cima, Castello, and others… (p) 1998 Harmonia Mundi Having wanted to hear some sonats this evening by Fontana, and noting that my computer had deleted this CD from my library, I re-imported this disc by Romanesca. I think it’s the last, if not very close to the last, CD the group has recorded. I have a feeling they have split (who knows for how long). For when these three musicians did play together, they were quite good at what they did. This CD has received very (very) favorable press from magazines and reviewers since it was release some 4 years ago. I still remember where I bought this… I had known it was coming out, and anxiously ran home to hear it once I had obtained it. Okay, I had to fly home (I was in Boston at the time) but it includes some “stylus fantasicus” style sonatas from early Italian baroque composers, including one of my favorites: Castello.
The combination of lute and harpsichord is odd. I’ve always thought it a bit strange compared to organ and archlute, or harpsichord and cello. From the baroque, some treatises tell you never to mix the two, others… well, document it was done. Funny thing, people did what they felt like, and nowadays historically-informed performers do much the same. It’s this attitude that has earned Romanesca, and espcially the violinist Manze such fame… The first thing you have to get “used to” aside from the lute/harpsichord pairing is the violin tone by Manze. It’s not my… favorite, but it’s very distinct. You could pick him out of 10 violinists. I have to say, that can be hard to do, and he deserves some credit for finding his own sound. I wonder though, what he’d sound like on a different instrument. For people who don’t like violin (and contrary to one review which commented upon Manze’s rendition of a Frescobaldi piece), there are two tracks devoted to the other players: a Frescobaldi variations piece for harpsichord, and a lute piece by Piccinini. A third offering comes in the form of a duet between chamber organ and lute. A very powerful piece by Kapsberger (another favorite composer for the lute). And of course there’s 2 sonatas by my friend Fontana, which I also own in a recording by Sonnerie with Monica Huggett. The Kapsberger, two Castello sonatas, and the final Sonata La Sfondrata by Corradini are worth purchasing the CD for. I’ve never seen Manze play live, but I imagine he’s an affective player. What I think is lacking in his performances (and alive in others of simliar or the same music) is affective treatments in slower, simpler material the sonatas offer the performer. For instance, the opening of the Fontana sixth sonata is just a bit… boring. There’s a lack of direction in the line. I like the fact he’s not vibrating, but… certainly some sort of embellishment on these naked tones might be used to gather our attention. The close mike used in the recording (especially so to the violin) also I think hurts the violinist. It’s real close, and the quality is great, but… the violin ends up sounding a bit dry. A little more acoustic space, I gather, would suit my taste more. Comparing this Fontana sonata to Monica Huggett: she uses lute and harpsichord as her side kicks, but her shape of line, I think, is a much better way to interpret this music. Also, I get the impression her change in tempi and styles so quickly throughout the sonata capture the real nature of the “stylus phantasicus,” basically, a mixed up collection of contrasting ideas in one large movement. Later, composers split these contrasts up, and today we have a canon of music that makes use of stops between “movements.” In conclusion, there’s great music here. And it’s very well played, don’t get me wrong. I only feel stylistically it could use some help. More zest in places, more repose in others; in some cases, I feel maybe it is just a bit too rehearsed. It’s hard to hold this against anyone. Just feel in a few places I got 1% milk when I paid for half-and-half. Written in January, 2003.