Looking towards the early baroque, I wanted to visit a composer that often is sampled from in recordings, one who well-represents the early baroque solo sonata for one or two instruments. Not much is known about Giovanni Battista Fontana. As the article mentions, a collection of his sonatas for treble instrument with bass was published after his death. In 1996, Ensemble Sonnerie released a 2 CD set of the composer’s works, alongside similarly styled sonatas by Cima and Turini. Smartly, I think, Huggett and company chose to vary the the continuo team with different colors, and different approaches among the sonatas. The striking cover featuring a painting by Mazzola was literally what had me picking up the recording in the record store. I wasn’t sure what to expect, these were all composers of whom I knew nothing. It would be a special treat, then, that last year when I visited Italy, I found this painting hanging in a museum. Fontana re-entered my mind.
The Huggett recording was well-done, I think, but since that time, other violinists have taken to at least some of the sonatas with mixed results. In retrospect, I find the recording by Ensemble Sonnerie to be just a little reserved in spots, when it comes to differentiating sections with tempo (some spots could have gone slower, some sections where the tempo picks up might have gone faster). The color of Huggett’s violin, too, takes on nuance, but not to what’s fully realized in later recordings. Sonnerie is conservative compared to other recordings, but from what I review below, not the most conservative. Ensemble Sonnerie release gives solo opportunities to the cornetto, the other instrument identified on the cover page of Fontana’s sonatas.
And from there, I’ll make a few comparisons. Thankfully the Ensemble Sonnerie recording included the entire collection, and it therefore becomes the benchmark.
Both Andrew Manze (as part of Phantasicus) and John Holloway offer us violin versions. Of all three, the Holloway recording on ECM (2012) is most clear and pristine as far as the recorded sound goes. For his reading, he’s joined by Lars Ulrik Mortensen on harpsichord. Holloway has excellent intonation, very well-matched to the tuning of the harpsichord. His ornamentation in spots attempts, I think, an Italian type of affect, but I was ultimately disappointed with the entire album, as this reading of the sonata attests, it comes across a bit too simple and at times, even, sleepy.
Manze’s recording is different, for he’s closely miked in a smaller acoustic space, clearly on the right side, while Nigel North on lute appears on the left. Unlike Holloway, he takes to giving shape to phrase units which for me is an interesting approach, as it maintains interest and allows the violinist to more or less point out to us some sense of a line that keeps going and going. Like Holloway, however, he can be tame at the ends of phrases, idolizing simplicity. Huggett is lighter in her approach, taking the start of the sonata at a quicker pace, and while her phrases aren’t highlighted in the same way that Manze does, she too is attempting to shape phrases in a musically satisfying way.
This one is the most familiar to me; it opens the Huggett recording, and it has also been recorded by John Holloway, Enrico Onofri (Imaginarium Ensemble, La Voce nel violino, 2007), and by Maurice Steger (Venezia, 1625 on Harmonia Mundi, 2009). Starting with Holloway, it’s easy to get caught up in the sound of his recording, as it’s up close, but also bathed in a beautiful reverb (as one might imagine, playing underneath a large dome in a baroque church). Mortensen seems to be working harder than Holloway, however, at bringing a different sound and aesthetic to the changing sections of character. As great examples, Fontana’s music is written in a style known today as stylus fantasticus, a pre-cursor of sorts to separate movements. The sonatas are played without any formal stop, but the different sections demand an approach that juxtaposes the pulse and with different tempos. They can also very easily take on pian and forte designations to aid in our perception of these moods.
Steger is a recorder player, and so his version is different simply on account of the sound and capabilities of his instrument. His choice in recorder is soft sounding, which is a difficult match to the continuo choice of organ, gamba, and lute, especially in the slower opening. The combination works better in faster parts, where shorter notes in the bass and higher notes in the recorder make the balance more favorable. Steger’s playing certainly is a little more clever than either of what Huggett, Manze, or Holloway brought to their violin playing; he uses several “tricks” to color the simply-wrought lines. Most of this is what we’d call ornamentation, but it goes beyond trills or appoggiaturas, the color of his sound changes, vibrato is introduced, and all around, he’s pushing the tempo in spots harder and faster than the others. What results is ultimately a more exciting reading.
Onofri’s recording with Imaginarium opens with harp in the bass. It’s a plain and simple opening, and because the harp is used, it makes me think of a scene at the Pearly Gates. In the second section, he’s trying hard to play connected and legato. He’s then joined by harpsichord too, helping the listener discern differences between the sections. Onofri is well known to be a player that plays with the sound of his instrument as an affective device, he’s doing that here, too, which I really like. As the sonata progresses, like Steger, he’s using all manner of ornamentation to bring interest to the line, which for the same reasons with Steger, I am in full support. The climax of the sonata comes in when the organ appears, with its depth of tone and low frequencies in the bass during a slow section, what comes next is a faster exchange, where now the violin is playing with more separation. I felt that Imaginarium really considered the piece as a whole and how to approach contrast with all of the tools as their disposal.
If that wasn't enough, Onofri also recorded the piece in 2003 on the Winter & Winter label with Lorenzo Ghielmi and Margret Köll (keyboards and harp). Of all the recordings, it's my favorite.
Ensemble Sonnerie performs this sonata with two cornetti and an early bassoon in the bass. In their 2000 recording, Il Giardino Armonico, perform this sonata too, cornettos, no doubt, but then they take to re-arranging the sonata as a ensemble piece, adding in strings too. The sound world owned by IGA is bigger, and offers a less intimate account. ES might be considered a practice section in private quarters, the version by IGA is more like the “big performance” for when an important Duke is visiting town. Onofri overly ornaments the lines given to him, and by his recording with Imaginarium, he’s far more restrained.
For this sonata, it opens with once voice (violin) in the Ensemble Sonnerie version then transitions to cornetto in the second voice. After two solo statements, the two enter into dialog through counterpoint, eventually with the bass joining-in as the third voice. The ensemble Quicksilver (2011) includes the decimaquarta sonata in their release, Stile Moderno: New Music from the Seventeenth Century. It opens the same, with violin. The recording is “closer” than the older one by Ensemble Sonnerie. The second voice, however, is also a violin. And the single instrument-continuo (harpsichord) is later doubled (with bassoon). While I think the violin playing by Huggett is superior, I like the tempo and style adopted by Quicksilver better.
The two sets to consider if you want a full plate of Fontana’s music is the 2 disc set by Ensemble Sonnerie (Virgin Veritas) or the single disc by John Holloway (for the solo sonatas, on ECM New Series). Holloway’s recording sounds more clear; Huggett’s reading is more musically satisfying.
The likes of Andrew Manze, Maurice Steger, and Enrico Onofri have also explored invention from Fontana’s pages. Like the others, the Steger recording samples from the era and picks out favorites. Some of them are too found on the versions by Imaginarium, Il Giardino Armonico (Onofri), and by Romanesca (Manze). I like all the recordings, really, but found among them, the later recording by Onofri with Imaginarium and the 1625-themed disc by Maurice Steger the most satisfying of all the recordings.