Spicy - Music by Biber, Schmelzer, Fux, Schmelzer
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Johann Joseph Fux, Andreas Anton Schmelzer, Spicy: Exotic Music for Violin. Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi (violin, direction). Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, (p) 2013; Time: 62:00; Rating: (5/5).
I continue in my survey of string music from the lands around Austria with this release of music by the Schmelzers, Biber, and Fux. The jocular Fechtschule in G major opens the recording (Fencing School) by J. Schemlzer. I’ve been challenged to find versions of these pieces better than the release from Musica Antiqua Köln, who set the bar high in their recording for DG Archiv around the early 1990s. This recording, despite its unfortunate name, is cut from a somewhat different cloth. The sound quality is far more expansive and rich than the release by MAK. This in part attributable to a far larger continuo team that uses organ, cello, and violone. The liner notes describe the release as “Austrian baroque music, spiced with oriental exoticness, virtuosity, scordatura, programmatic approaches, dulcimer and percussion, played on violins by Jacobus Stainer.” That’s a mouthful. The detail about the maker of the instruments is interesting, for I’ve always found the sound of period violins by Stainer to be especially attractive.
Also included by Biber are two of the string suites from the collection Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa, Partitas III and VI, the Sonata Representativa, and Andreas Schmelzer’s supposed copy of Biber’s Crucifixion sonata, Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683. Already in the catalog are (excellent) comparative releases from the likes of the Rare Fruits Council, Ensemble Masques, Andrew Manze, Enrico Onofri, and Reinhard Goebel.
The only piece “new” to me on this recording is the Partita a tre in C by Fux, K. 331., Turcaria. From this piece the ensemble seem to validate the “oriental exoticness” referenced in the liner notes. Percussion and Turkish melodies combine here for a successful journey outside western Europe. In the final movement, entitled Posta turcica, I hear the “mail horn” played evidently as a call signal on the stagecoach from Bach’s keyboard suite (capriccio) written on the occasion of the departure of his beloved brother (BWV 992). The piece is an interesting one and is very well performed, with a significant contribution from the dulcimer, played by L’Arpeggiata-alum Margit Übellacker.
As familiar as these pieces are to me, Lüthi and ensemble offer some new perspectives on these pieces, from surprising changes in harmony (minor to major), different yet very welcome ornamentation, the variation of continuo instruments to contribute significant color to the ensemble, and variations in tempo from other recordings of these works. Having it all come together in a strength is exemplified in their reading of the A minor scordatura arrangement of Biber’s Crucifixion sonata. The playing throughout is confident, well-conceived from a stylistic standpoint, and ultimately more satisfying than an older reading by Romanesca (Andrew Manze, Violin).
One might question the obvious luxurious presentation here. The strummed continuo in the third movement, for instance, of Biber’s third partita from the Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa is “big” sounding. No historical justification is described for including such a large continuo group, but for me, it adds to the theater of these pieces. And it is justification, I think, if you’re like me and already own recordings of some of these pieces, to hear them in a “different light.” While the luxury of color, of reverb, and a wide tonal gamut are captured in this recording, what stands out most for me is the feeling of love these musicians must have for this music.
While I almost cringe thinking of this music as “spicy,” the cover art image of an exploded pomegranate seems somehow appropriate as a visual facsimile of this music. Whatever marketing used put aside, what remains is a musically-satisfying recital of colorful music performed by a young ensemble. Well done and strongly recommended.