John Holloway: Unam Ceylum (ECM New Series 1791)


Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber
Unam Ceylum

John Holloway violin
Aloysia Assenbaum organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Recorded May 2001, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Much of what the classical listener hears in recent recordings of Baroque music is cluttered with ornamentation, overbearing virtuosity, and fresh takes on the tried and true. In short, a little too much fuel where already there is fire. Such innovations aren’t necessarily a detriment to the industry, as they can (and do) inspire new generations of listeners who may not have a taste for what they consider to be “staler” interpretations. Still, there is something to be said for the straightforward and the cerebral. Thankfully, the ECM albums of violinist John Holloway are here to provide a happy compromise between the two camps, playing with humility music that is already a raging conflagration amid a growing pile of neglected aural kindling.

Though I am compelled to praise the works of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) for their sagacity, inventive scordatura tunings, and an indomitable spirit that seems to leap from every phrase, I am all the more boldly struck by their descriptive qualities. The sonatas on Unam Ceylum are taken from a 1681 anthology and include at least one (No. 84) never before committed to disc. In the company of Holloway and his esteemed colleagues, the composer’s descriptivism is given full reign. Building off the somewhat controversial success of its earlier Schmelzer recording, the trio sets the violin afloat upon an innovative continuo of harpsichord and organ.

Biber has a way of painting full-fledged dramas in but a single stroke of the bow, and indeed these sonatas would seem to thrive on stage, each a different scene in an overarching play. Some depict dancing and courtly romance, while others ooze with nostalgia for bygone days. The Sonata III in F majorprovides our opening act, evoking everything from birdcalls to tempests. The four-handed (and two-footed) continuo adds intrigue to an already fleshy plot. Mortensen follows wherever he is led. Assenbaum adds a touch of vaulted beauty. The latter shares a particularly enraptured passage with Holloway, who then transposes the bass line over a harpsichordic run before ending on a fast, unresolved note at the very peak of emotion. The somber drawl of Sonata IV in D major makes for an undulating segue into Act II, brought to jovial light in the unpublished Sonata No. 81 in A major. Its playful, teasing tone delivers what it promises in dense ascents, diffused by a scattered finish. The Sonata VI in C minortwists itself into a tantalizing climax from modest beginnings. After a positively lovely organ introduction, its rubato journey pulls us through edgier continents, all too soon alighting on forlorn shores. The G-major Sonata VII is a mixture of sadness and frivolity leading us into to the Sonata No. 84. It is here where finality comes to light, allowing Holloway the last word in ecstatic tangents. Yet again we are left hanging in delightful anticipation. This lends the music further commensurability and allows us to return to it eager for new details to emerge, which they inevitably do.

Though I began by downplaying virtuosity a bit, I cannot help but give a heavy nod to these musicians for theirs and the clarity it produces. Through the force of his vision, Holloway plays with this clarity to dazzling effect, never straying far from the printed score. He has completed his survey of the 1681 Sonatas with a follow-up album that also includes Muffat and which deserves a seat alongside this phenomenal start. Played as pristinely as it is recorded, this is a set to be savored.

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