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CD reviews

"Stylus Phantasticus"

Tekla Cunningham, violina
Pacific MusicWorks
Dir: Stephen Stubbs

rec: Feb 15 - 17, 2018, Kenmore, Wash., USA, St Thomas Chapel
Reference Recordings - FR-742 (© 2021) (74'40")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ignazio ALBERTINI (1633-1685): Sonata I in d minorabcdfg [7]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata prima in A (C 138)abcefg [6]; Francesco CORBETTA (1615-1681): Partite sopra La Foliace; Carlo FARINA (1600-1639): Sonata II detta la Desperataabcdfg [1]; Giovanni Battista FONTANA (?-1630): Sonata II in Dabcefg [2]; Giovanni DE MACQUE (1550-1614): Toccatac; Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (1630-1669/70): Sonata IV in D, op. 3,4 'La Castella'abcefg [4]; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1620-1680): Serenada in Mascara (Ciaccona in A)abf; Sonata II in Fabcdfg [5]; Sonata IV in Dabcefg [5]; Marco UCCELLINI (1603-1680): Sonata II detta la Luciminia contenta, op. 4,2abcdfg [3]

Sources: [1] Carlo Farina, Fünffter Theil newer Pavanen, Brand: Mascharaden, Balletten, Sonaten, 1628; [2] Giovanni Battista Fontana, Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per il violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento, 1641; [3] Marco Uccellini, Sonate, correnti et arie da farsi con diversi stromenti sì da camera, come da chiesa, op. 4, 1645; [4] Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, Sonate a violino solo, per chiesa e camera, op. 3, 1660; [5] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Sonatae unarum fidium, seu a violino solo, 1664; [6] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Sonatae violino solo, 1681; [7] Ignazio Albertini, Sonatinae XII violino solo, 1686

William Skeen, bass violinb; Maxine Eilander, harpc; Stephen Stubbs, chitarroned, guitare; Henry Lebedinsky, harpsichordf, organg

Most lovers of early music may be familiar with the term stylus phantasticus. This was the style of most instrumental music written in Italy and Central Europe (Austria, Bohemia, Germany) during most of the 17th century. It is not a modern musicological term: it was 'invented' by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), who lived in Rome, where he wrote his book Musurgia Universalis. The booklet to the present disc quotes his description of this style: "The Stylus phantasticus is appropriate to instruments. It is the most free and unfettered method of composition, bound to nothing, neither to words, nor to a harmonious subject. It is organized with regard to manifest invention, the hidden reason of harmony, and an ingenious, skilled connection of harmonic phrases and fugues. And it is divided into those pieces which are commonly called Phantasias, Ricercatas, Toccatas, and Sonatas".

The programme includes a sequence of pieces which demonstrate the features of this style. It had its roots in Italy, and was one of the fruits of the style that was introduced around 1600, known as the seconda pratica. Part of that was instrumental virtuosity: instruments which previously were mainly used for dance music or participated in performances of vocal music, were now given an opportunity to shine in solo pieces, such as sonatas and canzonas. It resulted in a large number of works for instruments as the cornett, the sackbut and the dulcian. One of the most popular instruments was the violin; the early decades of the 17th century saw the appearance of a whole number of virtuosic violinists, who often also wrote music for their own instrument. Some left the choice of instruments to the performer, which allowed them to be played on the violin, but also on the cornett or the recorder. The six solo sonatas by Giovanni Battista Fontana are among them. He himself was a violinist, but in his sonatas he avoided techniques which would make them unfit to be played on, for instance, the recorder. Recorder players of our time may thank him for that, because his sonatas are excellent examples of the stylus phantasticus, and are perfectly suitable for their instrument. There is no lack of recordings of these sonatas on the recorder. Recently I reviewed a disc which includes all six of them, performed by Julia Fritz.

The Sonata II detta la Desperata by Carlo Farina is a different matter. He may have been a pupil of Salomone Rossi, and played a crucial role in the transportation of the new style to Germany, as in 1625 he was appointed Konzertmeister at the court in Dresden, when Heinrich Schütz was Hofkapellmeister. He later worked in Danzig (Gdansk) and Vienna. In the sonata included here he makes use of the technique of double stopping, which makes it unsuitable to be performed on an instrument that is not able to play polyphonically. Another brilliant violinist was Marco Uccellini. Charles Brewer, in his liner-notes, states: "Especially significant are the ways that Uccellini stretched violin technique in terms of range and difficulty". The Sonata II a violino solo detta la Luciminia contenta is a good example of his style. It was included in a collection of pieces intended for the chamber or the church. The latter is important, as we know that instrumental music could be part of a liturgical framework. An instrumental sonata could be played, for instance, during Vespers as a substitute for the repetition of an antiphon, which normally embraced a psalm.

It is also one of many pieces of the period that have a title which is not always easy to interpret for modern performers. That also goes for the title of this particular piece. Brewer refers to a musicologist who has suggested what it may refer to, but that is hard to prove. However, it seems right to conclude from this, as Brewer does, that "Uccellini was creating an expressive musical language to match that of music with words". This is an interesting and important feature of the music of the 17th century. Vocal music was still given prominence, but instrumentalists created music that could be interpreted as vocal music without a text. One of the principles of vocal music of the time was the importance of affetti. The music had to be written in such a way that human emotions were communicated to the audience. Composers of instrumental music wanted to prove that affetti can also be expressed without words. As human emotions can shift quickly, from joy and excitement to despair and sadness, instrumental pieces written in the stylus phantasticus reflect this through a sequence of sections contrasting in rhythm, metre and tempo, which follow each other attacca.

There are other features of 17th-century instrumental music that are not included here, such as the fashion of imitating natural phenomena and the use of scordatura. That seems right, because the former is a habit of all times and the scordatura technique was also used in the 18th century. However, what does receive attention here is the use of a basso ostinato, which was an inextricable part of the 17th-century musical idiom. Pieces with the title ciaccona or passacaglia from this period are numerous. In addition to pieces specifically referring to a repeated bass pattern, this is often hidden. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonata IV is one example, the Sonata La Castella by Pandolfi Mealli another.

Lastly, Kircher's description of the stylus phantasticus refers to its improvisational features. Sonatas written in that style indeed suggest that the affetti they express are something of the moment, unprepared and being invented on the spot. That is not the case, of course, but such works may indeed have found their origin in improvisations. From that angle it is appropriate that a Toccata by Giovanni de Macque is included, as this was the ultimate example of a free form, which could take any shape under the hands of the player.

Over the years I have heard many recordings of this kind of repertoire, and it never fails to make a strong impression. The instrumental music of the 17th century is quite exciting stuff. However, its effect largely depends on the performance. If the contrasts within pieces are flattened out or the dynamic differences are equalized, the music becomes almost harmless, and one cannot experience the excitement it must have caused at the time it was written and performed. I am happy to say that in all respects, the performers succeed with flying colours in bringing this music to life. Tekla Cunningham not only impresses with a flawless technique, but also with her deep understanding of the rhetorical and gestural nature of this repertoire. This is one of the best demonstrations of the features of the stylus phantasticus that I have heard recently. She receives excellent support from the basso continuo section, which is a real driving force. Its importance in the performance of this repertoire cannot be overestimated. The use of a harp is particularly enjoyable.

In short, this disc is a perfect display of the excitement of the stylus phantasticus.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Tekla Cunningham
Pacific MusicWorks

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