John Holloway: Unarum fidium (ECM New Series 1668)



John Holloway
Unarum fidium

John Holloway baroque violin
Aloysia Assenbaum organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Recorded December 1997, Kloster Fischingen, Switzerland
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“And if you require proof of faith, I’ll show you not fidelity but my fiddle.”
–Johann Heinrich Schmelzer

On Unarum fidium, violinist John Holloway has put together a robust program of Baroque delights and an even more robust assembly of musicians to make them sparkle. For his ECM debut, Holloway wanted to do something special, it seems, and opts for a unique basso continuo of harpsichord and organ, respectively played by Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Aloysia Assenbaum. The two work in tandem—the result of arduous experimentation—to form a breathtaking stage for three demanding technical dramas. The choice is far from arbitrary and has legitimate historical precedent as a later 17th-century configuration. Remarks Holloway, “One of our ambitions with this recording is to demonstrate a case for this extraordinarily rich sound in instrumental music of this style.” Whatever the ambition, this innovative trio synergizes like no other.

The Verona-born Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) was a composer of the Viennese Imperial Court whose posthumous reputation hardly matches that which he enjoyed in his lifetime. The Chiacone on offer is reason enough to restore it. Any doubts about the continuo are immediately quelled as its lush bifurcation spreads warmth throughout every phrase. As for the music itself, it is effervescent and exhilarating. Like a theatrical production that masks all the dramaturgical grunt work with sublime costuming and dance, it enchants not without great effort. Holloway commits himself to a melodic line that is all the fierier for its restraint.

Succeeded perhaps only by Biber’s Mystery Sonatas in complexity and content, the Sonatae unarum fidium of Johann Schmelzer (1620-1680) shine as exemplars of the form. Schmelzer, who may very well have studied with Bertali in Vienna, was a master on another level, as evidenced in his fondness for playful contrasts. Where the First Sonata is languid, almost provincial, the Second Sonata leaps into more spirited reveries. Despite all the flourishes demanded of the soloist, the music remains fairly stationary. The Third Sonata makes use of an enchanting echo technique and allows the organ its broadest strokes, which eventually blend into the arpeggio that opens the Fourth Sonata. And as the violin slowly works its way into the architecture at large, it approaches percussive identities in the faster variations. The Fifth and Sixth Sonatas are markedly different in that they work with negative space, describing the branches of a tree not by the leaves they sprout but by the snatches of sky they delineate.

Holloway closes with an anonymous Sonata for scordatura violin and basso continuo. Found in the same library among the preceding works, its stylistics places it squarely within the Biberian matrix. It may be the shortest piece on the album, but the present company only enlivens its archival significance as a fitting finish.

The music on this disc is refined, but also more contemplative than that of Holloway’s other ECM outings. What it lacks in flair for the programmatic contortions of Biber or the eccentricities of Veracini, it makes up for in directness of heart. This is melodically linear music that leaves an unmistakable crumb trail for us to follow. What he drops is so delectable that we end up eating our way to the destination without hope of return. The beauty of it is that, by the end, we are happy to stay right where we are.

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