John Holloway, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, and Jane Gower perform soprano sonatas by Dario Castello and Giovanni Battista Fontana on ECM New Series. John Holloway has been consistent: he's been recording solo violin sonatas by a variety of Baroque composers, each time with a somewhat esoteric matching of continuo, from Bertali and Schmelzer, to Leclair, Veracini, Biber, and now two Italians: Castello and Fontana. I buy them all and but rarely find them as full-blooded as I'd like. This release is in the same camp. My familiarity with Fontana comes from the 2CD set by Monica Huggett and her Sonnerie some years back, on Virgin Veritas. She paired with her musical partners, going for simple, clean lines with a variety of solo and continuo configurations, most notably featuring cornetto and violin. In this release, Holloway pairs harpsichord with baroque bassoon (or dulcian) as his continuo team, with Holloway himself of course playing his Michel de Hoog copy of an Amati violin. Castello's pieces flank the recording, as the opening and closing 3 (each). In the middle is a sampling from Fontana. One of the most familiar pieces is the 12th track, a Sonata Seconda II from Castello for violin and harpsichord. For me, it's a piece so familiar, and I immediately enjoy the sound world occupied by Ulrik Mortensen's and Holloway's instruments. I dare say Mortensen has been "taking lessons" from Richard Egarr, I don't ever remember him taking quite the aggressive approach with continuo playing. It works. In this piece, he utilizes an instrument that combines wind power with the harpsichord. It's delicious. I start with this piece because to convince us of their abilities, they have to hit the familiar ones out of the park. Holloway does vary his tempi in each section, even dynamics, showing us plenty of virtuosity in between phrases. But it's Holloway that could probably even go further… in milking even more drama out of the music. He sometimes simply comes across a tad too clean. For me, this wasn't a reference recording of the Sonata Seconda, but it was good. Strong, even. Fontana's own Sonata Seconda is also familiar to me. Again the opening is like a morning song, I only picture a clean, perhaps stone-walled room with high ceilings, bathed in early morning light. It's a simple, beautiful sound. I like their interpretation, up to a point. Again, I feel Holloway could just push the extremes he visits a little more. We might say he needs to amplify a bit; if I were talking cooking, I might be calling for a stronger spice or more salt. Perhaps I need to get over the fact he isn't Italian. What I call "an Italian" interpretation, from the likes of Onofri, or Minasi as some of my favorite examples, would be my reference. Yet, since I already own some of these pieces by the likes of those folks, why not indulge in another point of view? Holloway does offer dulcian continuo in some pieces, which by my evaluation, is more rare (and it sounds pretty good, I'll add). When he's playing alone with Mortensen, they're locked in pretty well. You'll be hard pressed to find a more "clean" sound from any other pair, and the quality of the recording and capture of acoustic space puts other recordings to shame. I often wonder in some sections of music like this, say the seventh track, the Sonata Decima by Fontana, during the slower interludes, how much improvisation would have been contributed by the instrumentalists. We'll never know… I often read that some writings about performance in the Baroque contradict one another, but I can't help but think I'd be inspired to noodle around a bit, if it were me. This trio takes it a bit more safe during those sections; while they are flexible with the beat and seem to be breathing through the phrases in natural way, I was just left a little disappointed there wasn't some spontaneous, mad virtuosic interjections. You may like the less dramatic interpretations… that's not to say we don't get drama. Castello, in particular, was able to write drama exceptionally well. Not all the pieces proffered are golden, but many are ripe exemplars of the early Italian phantasticus style, which is certainly different than the standard Baroque stock of Handel, or Vivaldi. For the ultimate experience, mix some of this latest offering from John Holloway with his other tracks, you'll be surprised by the consistency and similar sound world he achieves in each release.