Quicksilver: Fantasticus

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Those among my regular readers who admire the work of Stephen Stubbs, John Holloway, and Rolf Lislevand as documented on ECM’s New Series will want to cast their ears on this assortment of Baroque gems from the independent Acis label. Plying their gifts are violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, trombonist Greg Ingles, dulcianist Dominic Teresi, viola da gambist David Morris, keyboardist Avi Stein (on harpsichord and organ), and Charles Weaver on theorbo and guitar. Known collectively as Quicksilver, they bring a formidable admixture of panache and musicological erudition to everything they touch, engaging the discerning listener with the alacrity of their programming.

Although billed as “Extravagant and Virtuosic Music of the German Seventeenth Century,” the present program approaches these monolithic adjectives in ways more nuanced than one might expect. The album’s title refers to the “Stylus Fantasticus,” which in the experimental tradition of the Italians (think Farina, Fontana, Castello, etc.) brought a cellular, wayward brand of composing into vogue. In this instance, however, “extravagance” connotes not grandiosity but inward qualities at play. The music offered here is focused and stays true to where it wants to go. As for virtuosity, it is less a matter of technical flourish than of balancing and controlling emotion, of keeping even the most challenging motif always within frame.

Although pieces by better known composers are sure highlights—the g-minor Prelude and G-major Sonata by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) for their urgent, sparkling counterpoint and the Polnische Scakpfeiffen of Johann Schmeltzer (c.1623-1680) for its vibrant upsweep—the generous helping of sonatas by Matthias Weckmann (1616-1674) and Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) is by no means anything to balk at. The former’s acrobatically inflected Sonata no.9 à 4 delineates complementary qualities in each instrument, while each of the latter’s three chosen selections, and especially the Sonata à 3 in d minor, blends courtly and bucolic sentiments with nary a seam within earshot. Bertali’s Sonata no.10 is another lively delight, which, in being hollow-boned, is best suited for its edgier chromatism.

Other pieces showcase the musicians as much as their composers of interest. A sonata by Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-1693) emphasizes the conversational relationship between the violins, another by Andreas Oswald (1634-1665) the dulcian’s melodic potential and keen interactions with trombone, and an anonymous Ciaconna the shadings of Quicksilver’s basso continuo. This leaves only the Canzona in C major, no.21 of Johannes Vierdanck (1605-1646), which gathers wood and strings in concert with Biber-like exuberance, shuffling atmospheres like a deck of cards dealt into a royal flush with every hand.

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