Giovanni Battista Fontana
Sonate concertate in stil moderno
John Holloway violin
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Jane Gower dulcian
Recorded June 2008 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
John Holloway has charted a veritable history of the Baroque violin across the waters of ECM’s New Series, but perhaps none so tantalizing as the selections he has assembled for this benchmark recording. Holloway notes a special affinity for Dario Castello (1590-1658) and Giovanni Battista Fontana (1571-1630), composers whose works he played as interludes in vocal music concerts early on in his career. Now, nearly four decades later, he allows them the full force of center stage.
This program’s featured sonatas denote a time when the violin was coming into its own as a melodic lead (where before it was merely a consort instrument) and the portability and projection of the fagotto, an early incarnation of the bassoon known also as the dulcian, replaced the viola da gamba as the bass line in chamber ensembles. Historical bassoon specialist Jane Gower plays the dulcian alongside Holloway—with whom, as always, is harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen. It’s a formidable trio playing formidable music, but with a graciousness born of knowledge and experience.
In her book Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music, musicologist Susan McClary brilliantly describes Dario Castello’s instrumental pieces as latching onto “a succession of impulses—some ordered with respect to goals, to be sure, but others producing extended passages of hovering.” Such a characterization might easily carry over into the concerto, to which this music represents a transitional link. Castello’s distinctly Venetian ornaments and flair for ecstatic denouements make of the listening—and, one can only imagine, the performing—a rewarding experience. The album is bookended by six sonatas from his two massive books of the same. All but two, the Sonata Prima à Sopran Solo and the Sonata Seconda à Sopran Solo, feature the dulcian. Those without boast a staggering variety of speeds, dynamics, and textures. Holloway and friends negotiate transitions between slow, reflective stretches of beauty and their cathartic outbursts with ease, and by those changes underscore a grand (but never grandiose) sense of development. Sonatas with the dulcian outweigh the potential complexities of the combination with awareness of line and form. Like masterful Celtic knotters, composer and musicians attend to every curve. Gower’s contributions (note especially the Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto) add depth of character to Mortensen’s sparkling frame, while Holloway enlivens the music’s cyclicity with meticulous intonation. The concluding Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto indeed brims with dramatic finality and, for its quick-witted arpeggios and filigreed structure, is the most virtuosic of them all.
It’s only natural that the music of Giovanni Battista Fontana, closest in style to Castello’s, should occupy the program’s center. Here we are treated to seven of his concerto sonatas, of which four do without the dulcian. To these Holloway brings a rustic energy by means of his bow, yielding and dancing in a veritable profusion of flora and fauna. Fontana, it might be said, was even more of an expository composer than Castello, as evidenced by tactile Sonata Terza Violino Solo and flowing tempi of the Sonata Sesta Violino Solo. Even more so with the dulcian in tow, as in the charged interactions of the Sonata Decima Fagotto e Violino. If these pieces seem more temperate, however, it’s only because the transitions between subdivisions are less explicit, marking as they do a time of great invention in the Italian sonata, so dutifully preserved for our own desire and pleasure for countless years to come.