Gunar Letzbor with Ars Antiqua Austria (2013—Arcana)
I'll start by writing that I was not a fan of this ensemble's earlier recording of Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli's opus 4 sonatas on the same label. In short, I felt that the performances were too tame, save for several extrovert outbursts that while exciting, failed to communicate a real "phantasticus" style. In addition, I felt the overall volume level of the recording to be too shallow and likely forced down to extend the dynamic range of the entire recording.
There was a note by the violinist in the first CD that he planned the recording with a meditative take and that the opposite would be employed in their upcoming release of op. 3.
First, the positives:
Letzbor has a nice violin sound and overall is a strong, passionate player that has good intonation. He is clearly heard in the recording. During the faster, more energetic sections, he's not afraid of pushing the instrument hard, which some players won't do. The range of continuo instruments is broad and the collection (among plucked, organ, harpsichord,and bowed bass) has a nice full, colorful variety. Each do not play at once, but they come and go to add color and variety to the bass line. At times, the rather fat plucked bass notes dominate the sound world created by Ars Antiqua, and those moments are quite ripe and satisfying.
The balance between continuo and violin does not come across as natural in the recording, at least with headphones. The violin is closer to the microphone, and no matter what racket is going on in the background with the other instruments, it's always forward. There is a resulting depth to the sound, with the continuo further away, which isn't a bad thing, but combined with the reverb from the recording space, it's difficult to position in your mind where you are among these instruments. Compared to their earlier recording, this one does not suffer from the ultra-quietness in recording level.
I was shocked to find the printed music for some of Pandolfi and to find it was printed with with a movable-type style notation (not a metal engraving). To print music this way, each note is like a letter on a typewriter, with the staff lines. It makes reading the music (for me, at least) very difficult. With parts separated, it's hard to analyze the music, too. Since I purchased this recording in a digital format, I do not know what type of performance music was prepared for the recording (not that all liner notes tell you, either).
But as with the earlier recording, there are times where the tempo and movement of bass and violin together seem locked into slow motion, in good tandem, but in slow motion. No beats are dropped. What's missing is any semblance of rubato, or humanistic treatment of the violin line (to mimic the voice), and instead phrases feel much to regular and square. To say this more clearly, the players seem to lack some essence of "style" on how to play this music convincingly. Which I find difficult to write, given that this comment is likely the most severe criticism I could write in a review after considering a musician's technical capacity. It's remarkable to me, considering the ensemble and its leader/violinist are quite capable of approaching a pleasing, musical "style" in other recordings.
So, I assume it's a "lack of application of style" that was a conscious effort here; it's one I cannot understand. As in the earlier recording, they seem to want to draw the largest contrast between the slower (docile) movements and the fast ones (with at times, unbridaled energy). The upward runs in track 15 are an excellent example, I think, from the 4th sonata "la Castella." Each note and each run (as a phrase) is played with equally spaced and timed notes. There is an application of dynamics applied, but it is far too little in my opinion. Why the phrases in track 21 ("La Clemente") are so drawn out and played so slowly, too, baffles me.
As a comparison, I cued a version of the Castella performed by Richard Egarr (harpsichord) and Andrew Manze (violin) on Harmonia Mundi from their 1998 release. The recording was far more clear, the balance between violin and keyboard more reasonable, and the changes in feel and pulse were far more evident between each section (taking on, in effect, a phantasticus style). In the middle, a real momentum builds. Both Egarr's playing and Manze's use of dynamics and tempo speak to this momentum. The result is something, to me, that sounds far more natural.
I also compared the 6th sonata, entitled "La Sabbatina" between the two recordings. Again, the phrasing by Manze with Egarr seems natural, with an emphasis on the violin line and it sounding like a long phrase that's all connected. Letzbor and Co. play far more disjointedly, with big gaps between the phrases, and a somewhat choppy handling of groups of notes within a phrase. Repeated notes in the violin, an affective technique called for by Panolfi, almost gets jokingly awkward in the hands of Letzbor.
No matter the technique these musicians both individually and collectively possess, the result is something I cannot say I find ultimately satisfying. The need for a stronger interpretation and sense of musical style is strongly evident to my ears. There are, at times, going to be recordings we simply do not like. I won't say that this is un-listenable, as it is quite a departure from the interpretation offered by Manze and Egarr. The continuo colors are rich and varied, and the violin playing is confident. But the whole package is unfortunately a disappointment to me. If I had not the Manze recording with which to compare this release, I might have been led to believe that Pandolfi was a poor composer. But I did have Manze first, and I am confident that he and Richard Egarr offered us a far more musical rendition of Pandolfi's sonatas. It's their interpretive decisions, their limited but palpable sense of rubato, and sense of phrase that makes Letzbor, by comparison, so ultimately disappointing. And what is strange to me, is that these musicians do apply rubato and affect at times (as in the ending of the 5th sonata) albeit in a strange and dramatic outburst kind of way.
An Amazon reviewer points out that there is a lack of tempo markings in many of these sonatas, and that Letzbor is taking the text at face value. I get that. I don't enjoy listening to it. Johan van Veen wrote in 2011 about the opus 4 release with comments on the outbursts and long pauses between sections within each piece. Those comments apply too to this newer reading of opus 3 when the continuo team gets riled up, and the pauses are still there, too.
In the end, we can't know how Pandolfi may have intended these to be performed when it comes to style, but if he were man of good taste, I am confident he would better prefer the recording by Manze.