The Complete Baroque Musician
The critical awards that greet virtually every new Andrew Manze release -- including Cannes, Edison, Grammy, CHOC, Gramophone and many more, as well as countless "Editor'S Choice" and "Best of" citations -- are eloquent testimony to the creativity and performing brilliance of this remarkable artist.
These generously filled CDs consistently contain well over an hour of music, and many approach 80 minutes. They reflect the qualities we have come to expect from Harmonia Mundi: informative booklets (featuring fascinating scholarly annotations by Manze), beautiful artwork and excellent sound. Harmonia Mundi does a brilliant job of creating a sonic ambience suitable to the music at hand, whether the actual recording venue is a Gothic church or a studio at Skywalker Ranch. An important factor in the consistently fine quality of these recordings is regular use of the same recording teams.
What in the heck do those ***’s mean?
In an attempt to offer some guidance through this forest of more and less familiar composers, especially for the Baroque novice, the listing for each CD (except the Portrait sampler) has one, two or three asterisks. These indicate this writer's arbitrary assessment of what is likely to appeal to a wider or more specialized audience. The ratings do not reflect my opinions about the relative worth of the music (I hate those 1-5 star rating systems, especially applied to art!), and readers may well disagree with my opinions, or completely ignore these classifications. There isn't a bad one in the bunch.
*** Deserves a place in any serious classical music collection.
** Should delight fans of the Baroque.
* Probably of most interest to more experienced and knowledgeable music lovers.
PRODUCTION CREDITS: TheTelemann and all Romanesca CDs (except Phantasticus): Robina G. Young; executive producer; John Haddon, session producer/engineer/editor. Unless otherwise noted, all other CDs: Robina G. Young, producer; Brad Michel, engineer; Paul F. Witt, editor.
ORGANIZATION: The recordings are grouped according to the performing forces involved. We'll begin, however, with two CDs that don't fit those groupings:
**Johann Pachelbel (1653 - 1706): Canon & Gigue; Chamber Works. London Baroque. Producer & engineer: Nicholas Parker; editor: Adrian Hunter. HMC 901539 if a I suspect that the Canon is the only Pachelbel composition known to many of us. Here, properly coupled to its companion Gigue, it receives a beautifully articulated, unsentimental performance. A welcome surprise is in the abundant invention evident in the sonatas and partitas that fill out the CD. Manze plays collegially within the seven-member London Baroque, soloing on only three tracks. No matter -- it's all a good show.
**John Tavener: Eternity's Sunrise. Chorus and Orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music, Paul Goodwin cond. [Recording engineer: Mike Hatch/Floating Earth, Ltd.] HMU 907231
The title work was commissioned by AAM for its 25th anniversary. Tavener has become quite enamored of the sound of the period instrument ensemble, and AAM has now recorded several of his works on three CDs. Here Manze is credited as solo violin with soprano Patricia Rozario and AAM on Song of the Angel, an ethereally haunting five-minute composition.
***Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770): The Devil's Sonata and Other Works. HMU 907213
**Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 - 1767): XII Fantasias for Violis Solo; Gulliver Suite for Two Violins (with Caroline Balding). HMU 907137
Tartini was as celebrated a virtuoso in the 18th century as was Paganini in the 19th. He was famous for his daring improvisations, especially playing his Devil's Sonata. For today's baroque fiddlers, the technical demands of that piece approach the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin. But it holds no terrors for Manze, who plays like Tartini reincarnate. This is no academic exercise, but an imaginative, wildly passionate recreation. Manze also sparkles in the (somewhat) less devilish works. A must-have for lovers of great violin performance.
The music of Telemann has typically struck this writer as well crafted, but paling in comparison to his supreme contemporary, J. S. Bach. (That judgment may well say more about my limitations than Telemann's.) These virtually unknown pieces show an engaging wit and lightness of spirit, both in Manze's lively account of the Fantasias and his collaboration with Ms. Balding in Gulliver.
**Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 - 1704): Violin Sonatas. HMU 90713435
**Biagio Marini (1587 - 1685): Curiose e Moderne Inventioni. HMU 907175
*Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620 - 1680): ): Violin Sonatas. HMU 907143
*Marco Uccellini (1603 - 1680): Sonatas. HMU 907196
**Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741): "Manchester" Sonatas for Violin & Continuo. HMU 907089, 907090
**Castello , Cima , Corradini , Fontana , Frescobaldi , Kapsberger , Pandolfi , Piccinini: Phantasticus (17th-Century violin music). HMU 907211
Let's begin with the early Italians. Marini suggests what a tabula rasa the Renaissance was for composers. It would be another century before forms such as the sonata become more rigidly codified. Marini was at liberty to produce his "curiosities and inventions" as freely as his imagination dictated -- and as we hear on this CD, his work sounds fresh today, especially in Romanesca's expert hands. There are similar discoveries on Phantasticus. With a couple of exceptions, these composers are unknown today to the public. But the colorful delights of this CD will make the adventurous listener eager for more. Phantasticus definitely repays repeated listening.
Manze's violin predominates on most of the Uccelini CD, while the musical textures are varied by harpsichord, organ, lute, archlute, therobo and baroque guitar -- North and Toll get to showcase their versatility. Again Manze becomes an intuitive co-creator, illuminating the expressive possibilities in scores that have little stylistic notation to guide him.
Manze cites Uccelini as an influence on Biber, and the reader may recall from the preceding interview that it was the challenge of animating these Biber sonatas that pointed Manze irrevocably toward baroque music. Biber takes us on a musical fun house ride, culminating in the nine-movement Sonata Representative, in which Manze imitates the sounds of various birds and animals, with North and Toll contributing constantly changing accompaniment. Indispensable for the musically adventurous.
Schmelzer's claim to fame is having been the first Austrian to become Hofkapellmeister (music director) of the Viennese Imperial court, breaking a century-old tradition of Italians occupying that post. Moreover, his sonatas were the first non-Italian opus to be published there. Schmelzer's music is far more disciplined and conventionally structured than Biber's, although one can see a connection in Schmelzer's Cuckoo Sonata. The performances are fully up to the Romanesca standard.
Vivaldi's "Manchester" sonatas -- so named because they were discovered in a manuscript collection in Manchester, England in 1973 -- were mostly unknown to the public until these recordings. Like other composers Manze has championed, Vivaldi was a violin virtuoso, and these challenging pieces were clearly designed to display his gifts. Manze and friends tear into them with exuberant mastery. The two CDs are packaged separately, so the listener can sample one before making the full investment. (You may well end up with both.)
***Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Complete Violin Sonatas. HMU 907250/51 (2 CDs)
**George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) Complete Violin Sonatas. HMU 907259
**Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi: Complete Violin Sonatas. HMU 907241
*Jean-Féry Rebel: Violin Sonatas. HMU 907221
Of Pandolfi we know virtually nothing except that his only surviving music was composed for the Hapsburg court at Innsbruck around 1660. The scores are sparsely written, but starting with only a few notations by the composer, Manze and Egarr (no gamba here) give us an inspired display of improvisation. The music is dramatic, sweetly lyrical...and often startling. You haven't heard anything quite like this.
With Rebel, we cross more than just a geographical border. This decorous French music is a world removed from Pandolfi's tempestuousness. Melancholy seems pervasive, though there are lively moments -- Rebel was also a ballet composer. The players honor the subtle light and shade of these lovely works with telepathic unanimity. Manze adopts an appropriately restrained style, and both Egarr and ter Linden capitalize on their opportunities to expand their continuo roles and animate Rebel's bittersweet melodies.
We don't often think of Handel in conjunction with chamber music; his great body of orchestral, choral and operatic music is far more celebrated. These sonatas demonstrate his fluency when writing on a smaller scale. Don't be fooled by the Opus 1 designation; the young Handel's precocious gift for memorable melody and artful musical structure is already abundantly evident. The performances could hardly be better, and again the booklet notes are exceptionally informative on the music and its historical context.
Bach represents the pinnacle of the trio sonata form -- their architecture comprises contrapuntal intricacy, melodic inspiration and harmonic symmetry. Manze notes that the three voices in these "trio" works are the violin and the harpsichordist's right and left hands, with gamba or cello maintaining the basso continuo. The elevation of the harpsichord from continuo to obbligato creates a more equitable partnership with the violin, resulting in more complex textures and melodic interplay.
Those familiar with other recordings may be startled by these players’ kinetic take-no-prisoners style, emphasizing energy and expressiveness over politesse. Certainly there is room for less aggressive interpretations -- for example, Rachel lPodger’s more lyrical approach on the Channel Classics label, which I also admire -- but the ear-opening bravura of Manze and friends is irresistibly stimulating.
***J. S. Bach: Solo & Double Violin Concertos. HMU 907155
***J. S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos. Richard Egarr, harpsichord. HMU 907283
***Francesco Geminiani: Concerti Grossi (after Corelli Op. 5). HMU 907261/62 (2 CDs)
***George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. HMU 907228/29 (2 CDs)
***Antonio Vivaldi: Concert for the Prince of Poland. HMU 907260
Readers who are unfamiliar with baroque performance practice may be surprised to learn that Manze directs the ensemble not with a baton, but while playing his violin. (This is historically correct -- and great fun to see. He plays and directs with eloquently animated body language and a joyous smile.) All of these performances are notable for the players' incandescent vigor and passion. AAM, founded by Christopher Hogwood, has always been a superb period performance band, but under Manze's fiery leadership they have surpassed even the high level of their recordings with Hogwood.
Anyone seeking a great recording of the Bach violin concerti need look no further. Collaborating with Rachel Podger in the double concerti, Manze and AAM deliver the definitive recording of these succinct masterpieces. I especially enjoy the interplay between Manze's diamond-like brilliance and Podger's warm, gutty sonority. Buying this CD is a no-brainer.
The same goes for the harpsichord concertos. These revelatory performances capture the proper instrumental scale and the soloist's concertante relationship with the tutti better than any previous recording I know. Beyond that, this is simply great music making. And see if you can identify the well-known Bach compositions that are the sources for two of these concertos, without looking at the notes. I typically recommend that the listener approach collections such as this one incrementally, getting familiar with to one piece at a time rather than having them blur together. In this case, I couldn't follow my own advice -- so exciting is the sense of discovery that I find it difficult to listen to just one.
The Vivaldi Concert CD re-creates an actual event. If the Prince heard anything approaching the excitement of these performances he must have been delighted. You can play this CD for the next ignoramus who trots out that tired old crack that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto a thousand times.
I listed the Geminiani set in Ultimate Audio’s 2000 "Best Recordings of the Year," and the passage of time has only increased my admiration. Geminiani modeled these audacious concerti grossion works by his mentor Corelli (one of the Corelli originals is included for comparison -- a nice touch). Their daring, complex harmonies and rhythmic vigor, vividly animated by Manze and the AAM, are exhilarating.
The twelve Opus 6 concerti grossi of Handel can stand proudly next to Bach's Brandenburgs as the highest expression of theconcerto grosso. With their electrifying energy and breathtaking precision, these performances surpass my favorite recording of more than two decades, by Neville Marriner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on lovely-sounding London LPs. Manze's Handel is simply essential in any well rounded classical music collection.
A Final Word
"Now wait a minute," I can hear the reader saying, "they can't all be that good." Well, I call ’em as I hear ’em, and I don't hear anything in Manze's recorded catalog that isn't at the very least worth a serious hearing. Obviously not everyone will share my enthusiasm; it even surprises me. I have never been especially interested in early baroque, as I was reminded of recently. I was raving about Manze to an old friend I see infrequently, and he reminded me that twenty-odd years ago I used to dismiss a lot of baroque music because "I like music I can remember the next day." Well, this music is pretty memorable -- and thankfully, I've gotten more receptive to new experiences than in my callow youth.
Yes, there are plenty of undistinguished recordings out there -- the sort of baroque muzak my local classical radio station always seems to be playing when I'm in a car -- but Manze's recordings don't remotely fit that description. He's not choosing music because it's obscure; he's polishing forgotten (and familiar) gems, bringing valuable music brilliantly to life for our pleasure and enlightenment. I hope many of you will join in this rewarding exploration.
Harmonia Mundi USA