Ars Antiqua Austria records the sonatas for violin and continuo by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi-Mealli on Arcana (p) 2011. The violinist Gunar Letzbor leads on violin against the continuo group this round in a short set of violin sonatas by the mysterious "Pandolfi," who allegedly was a murderer and violinist, not to mention a composer. He left us with two sets of violin sonatas that have survived, and this recording covers the complete fourth opus. In the opening remarks in the leaflet, they take a quote from another baroque violinist, Andrew Manze. Incidentally, Manze has made two recordings of the Pandolfi sonatas, the last a complete set with harpsichordist Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi. Look it up, because Manze records both operas, 3 and 4, complete. In one CD. Letzbor would have us buy two CDs to own the complete collection. I am guessing Letzbor isn't money hungry, but instead, wanted to take his time and take slower tempi in his reading. The second set, op. 3, is promised to be released in 2012 by Letzbor and the Ars Antiqua. In reviewing this disc, I can approach it really two ways. On its own, or by comparing it to the earlier release(s) by Manze. I feel I have to make comparisons since the readings are so different. I found a copy of the original printed edition online, which used a non-engraving technology to imprint the music. The notes were instead set like regular type (see Petrucci) complete with the lines. Needless to say, there's not a lot of information there beyond a bass part, the violin part, and a few markings. The markings tell us some speed indications between the parts (I'd use this word over "movement" since they are sometimes very short, in a Phantastic style.) We get when to turn minor tonic chords into major ones with sharp signs, but aside from a few slurs, all those pointy notes are what's left. (If you entertain me by downloading the PDF copies, you'll see what I mean about reading the music. The tails are so important!) In assessing the performance by Letzbor and company I had the earlier recording by Manze as a comparison. I'd have to say it was one of my more favorite Manze recordings (this, along with his Rebel and his crowning glory, the op. 5 of Corelli are my favorites). So I'm looking for Letzbor to say something else with Pandolfi's music. The liner notes indicate this is a melancholy set, and the approach here by Letzbor and company is to breathe a little and show us Pandolfi's "profound painful bitterness." This also impacted the character of the continuo instruments. Letzbor makes an interesting case for using a variety of continuo instruments due to the theatre culture in Innsbruck. Violone, colascione, chitarra, archlute, harpsichord, and organ are used (lots of organ). They do not all play simultaneously. But when they do, they are probably the meanest group of continuo players on record. They sound angry and they take the bitter aesthetic to a new high (or low, as the case might be better stated). The six sonatas have titles, most of which have been positively identified as persons known to Pandolfi. I can't say why one in particular is assigned to a person, other than as a dedication (we don't necessarily want to read that the title implies the person's character is somehow captured in the music). The second sonata is called La Viviana, and is in three major sections. Letzbor has decided to break up the sonatas with track numbers, where Manze records each sonata in a single track. AAA opens the work with solo organ, but not in a terribly creative way. The score shows a single note, and they play more than that... but it's a lean texture, with just that clean organ and the violin. Letzbor has a nice sound. During this first track, where the tempo picks up, then some sentries in the background fire off warning shots, then retreat into the background until an all-out war breaks out in the middle track, marked Allegro. Most of the sword fighting is done by Letzbor himself, bringing about sounds of frustration, angst, or just plain anger. Never say the violin isn't capable at well-expressing human emotions. The final track, marked Adagio has sent the reinforcements home. It's contemplative, again with that single organ which is mostly holding pedal tones while Letzbor sings on top, pretty faithfully reproducing each of Pandolfi's notes. All the harmonies are set up for a dramatic close (at about 1:20 in the timing), but somehow it's not there. Maybe I'm channeling my inner-Manze. The rest of the track is a juxtaposition of contrasting phrases, but for some reason here we're not playing into the shifting moods idiom characteristic of the Phantasticus style. The music was published in the later half of the 17th century. This is the birth of Phantasticus. I'm not going to break down each sonata, but let me say a few words about the recording then my overall impression. (1) The recording is nice and clear with a wide soundstage, but the overall volume is a little low in comparison to some other recordings - especially Mazne's on Harmonia Mundi, which is recorded more closely. (2) I can't imagine the way Letzbor plays these sonatas was the way they were played in 1660. At least I hope not. I find the lack of ornamentation especially amid the slow Adagio movements interesting - it's one thing I often have found critical of Manze's recordings. The organ sometimes grows tired on these long held notes. Contrast this approach with that of Richard Egarr on harpsichord. There's a lot of Egarr in those notes, but that's what he's bringing to the table. Norbert Zeilberger is playing a rather beautiful organ, but he's not putting a lot of himself into the reading. Let's take the third sonata as an example. Letzbor takes a very leisurely 11 plus minutes to open this sonata, named La Monella. The violinist's tone is nice, but the long held notes against long-held organ notes is just plain underwhelming. It might be affective flavor, but I much prefer Andrew Manze's sense of line and structure to these sonatas. In each, he pushes, and gives a shape to each of the phrases in each sonata. Letzbor is going for ecstasy. I didn't hear much of it. Letzbor, by comparison with Manze, will jump out like banshees and make a ruckus all of a sudden, with histrionic playing. I like histrionics, and he gives some serious tone in the Presto from this sonata, along with ample speed and drive. But whoa! Where did that come from? The continuo is snapping away at strings, Letzbor is getting all ponticello-esque on us, and then the next movement in "3" sounds like an extra track from Ensemble Kapsberger's Alfabeto album. Some of these little movements are so good, they ought to be repeated and improvised a bit. Instead, we retreat to anger and simplicity. If one comparison isn't enough, Manze recorded Pandolfi too on his album with John Toll and Nigel North called Phantasticus. The opening track is the same La Monella sonata from opus 4. The opening isn't really giving us much beyond the notes on the page, but after the opening, Manze's band Romanesca has enough sense to push the tempo a little, providing us a real sense that the composer is shifting moods between each phrase sentence. Either way, Manze's backup guys (either in the keyboard-lute duo or the solo harpsichord) seem to have more imagination than Ars Antiqua's, who again, just seem fiercely angry. Angry can be very exciting, but I think despite the flashes of technical fireworks and ruckus making, Manze has better captured the style of the music of this Italian composer. In the end, there's some good playing by Letzbor and Ars Antiqua Austria, but not enough to recommend adding the recording to your collection. I like the sound of Letzbor's instrument better than Manze's, and I'm thrilled to have another reading of Pandolfi-Mealli's music on record. But the interpretation ultimately has me scratching my head. Their approach is ultimately too dry for my taste, and while the angry outbursts may put a smile on your face as the musicians demonstrate their technical prowess, I seriously have to question whether Don Pandolfi would have ever heard something like that in his time. Of course, we won't know. But this fan of Biber prefers the interpretations by Andrew Manze. To be fair, Letzbor notes his approach is very different in the opera terza set due next year. I'm hoping it's less serious and adopts a lighter, more agile approach. There's no doubt these musicians have the chops to do so.