Dario Castello/Giovanni Battista Fontana: Sonate concertate in stil moderno (ECM New Series 2106)

Sonate concertate in stil moderno

Dario Castello
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.

Holloway Mortensen Gower

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.

John Holloway: Veracini Sonatas (ECM New Series 1889)

Veracini Sonatas

Veracini Sonatas

John Holloway violin
Jaap ter Linden cello
Lars Ulrik Mortensen cembalo
Recorded September 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768) is the subject of John Holloway’s fourth ECM traversal of Baroque violin repertoire. Joined now by cellist Jaap ter Linden and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, who together comprise a formidable continuo, Holloway mines the ore of yet another underrepresented violinist-composer, this one an iconoclast to the last: showman, itinerant solo artist, and experimenter. The variety of his contributions to the sonata canon of the time—in both its four- and five-movement incarnations—is expertly represented on this disc. Through them all runs a deep mineral vein of melodic and atmospheric sensitivity.

The Sonata No. 1 in g minor, composed in 1721, comes from the composer’s Opus 1. Its pentagonal structure flies effortlessly from Holloway’s bow, by which he elicits a tone so organic that one hardly notices the trills and mordents of his interpretive genius—some of the most artful to be found in the world of Baroque violining. Whether by the leaping Allegros or the darker, quasi-operatic turns, Holloway and friends mark the passage of this music with instruments as cartographic as they are sonorous.

One quickly notices an airiness to this music that, while charming, is never paltry. This is due equally to the writing and to the playing, both of which work in lively, scintillating congruence. And even though Holloway occupies the spotlight, the interactions between cello and harpsichord are so integral—the former weaving comets through the latter’s pinpointed stars—that to imagine the music without them is to imagine a sky without clouds. The result is a sense of open space, whereby each sonata lends grandeur to even the airiest movements—to wit: the Largo that begins the Sonata No. 5 in C Major. Taken from the Sonate a violino, o flauto solo, e basso, a collection that predates the Opus 1 by five years yet which was published only posthumously, it sketches canvas with bolder ground lines. This renders the exuberant movements all the more emphatic, enacting balance between the violin’s flight paths and the bass lines entrenched below. The concluding Allegro emotes with bravado in a blush of call and response.

The date of composition of the Sonata No. 1 in D Major, from Veracini’s “dissertation” on Corelli’s Opus 5, is uncertain. Considering its programmatic brilliance, youth dominates the possibilities. The dual voicing in particular invokes the antennae of a butterfly fresh from the cocoon. The contrast of this sonata’s shadows and lights presage the maturity of narrative voice achieved in the Sonata No. 6 in A Major, from Veracini’s Opus 2, the Sonate accademiche. Written in 1744, its sweep and drama are on par with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The brief Siciliana that opens betrays nothing of the variety about to ensue. This one has it all: tearful beauty and folk-like revelry in equal measure. At its center is a memorable Andante, in which we are treated to a lute-registered harpsichord, while pizzicato cello and muted strings from the violin touch hands in a most delicate choreography before funneling into a spirited Allegro assai to superb closure.

Where some composers have left only breadcrumbs for future listeners to follow in the wake of paltry imitations, this benchmark recording offers loaves of sonic goodness that are as warm and nourishing as the days they were first baked. The mastery of their realization is matched only by the engineering, which captures details from a respectable distance. Yet another essential document of 18th-century repertoire from those who know its secrets best.

Jean-Marie Leclair: Sonatas – Holloway (ECM New Series 2009)

Jean-Marie Leclair
Leclair Sonatas

John Holloway violin
Jaap ter Linden violoncello
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Recorded November 2006 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The biographies of composers can sometimes outweigh the notoriety of their music. Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) is one such case. Born 1697 in Lyon, he left the city in his mid-twenties for Turin, where he sharpened his eye (and ear) for theatre and ballet and returned to Paris in 1723 to make a name for himself as a composer. Within a decade he was one of the most exciting violinists of his time, a pioneer in the French school of his instrument. By 1758 he had fallen on hard times. After leaving his wife, Leclair rejected the offers of his patron, the Duke de Gramont, to instead take lodgings unbefitting of his station in an unreputable part of the city. Six years later, a gardener would discover the composer stabbed to death in his vestibule. The gardener himself and Leclair’s nephew emerged as primary suspects, but no conclusive evidence was ever brought upon either (the most recent scholarship fingers the latter). One might think, in the wake of this tragedy, that the fruits of his endeavors would have bounded of their own accord into the public eye. This was not to be, and it is only with the advent of recording that his chamber works have grown into the recognition they deserve beyond musicological interest.

In a conversation included in the CD booklet, John Holloway is quick to place Leclair alongside the great violinist-composers under the bow of his acclaimed earlier ECM recordings: Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Veracini. With cellist Jaap ter Linden and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, the British violinist takes on five selections from the opus 5 of 1734. Among the composer’s finest, the set yields a surplus of charm and virtuosity. While Holloway’s Leclair reads more conservatively than the fiery licks of his Biber, these sonatas are more about consistency than drama. To achieve this is no small feat, and requires fluid concentration of the musicians. That being said, the uniformity of dynamic patterning and phrasing will tire some listeners, who may feel it better suited as a light soundtrack to their activity. All the more reason to give it a deep listen the first time around.

Leclair’s time in Italy clearly rubbed off—not only because he follows the four-movement model of his predecessor, Arcangelo Corelli (in Turin, Leclair studied with Giovanni Battista Somis, himself a pupil of Corelli), but also because his deft blend of the Rococo and the Baroque sets him apart from the Parisian pack and speaks of a continental (known then as the gouts réunis, or “mixed taste”) perrsonality. The sonatas chosen here boast some of his subtlest inflections, and nowhere more so than the whimsical opening of the Sonata VIII in D major. This gives way to spirited color changes as the harpsichord continuo drops out for the tender Aria, only to make its triumphant return in the stately Andante before bristling with sprightly atmospherics in the dancing Allegro. Those wanting stronger excitements need look no further. This theatrical edge continues in the Sonata VII in a minor, in which a straightforward beginning yields two winged Allegros. Captivating harmonies between violin and harpsichord add to the airborne feel and give extra shine to Holloway’s trills.

One hears Italian pigments seeping through the opening Adagio of the Sonata I in A Major, the Aria of which weaves the more sensitive writing on this disc, as do the Largo and Aria of the Sonata III in e minor. The Sonata IV in B-flat Major carries this tender mission further in its Adagio, which sparks a fuse of complex proportions in an exhilarating Chaconna, a sonata unto itself.

This may not be as thrilling as Holloway’s previous recordings for ECM, and not one the newcomer may wish to start with, but Leclair’s music lives by its own rules of contrast. The intuitiveness of his harmonization and counterpoint, Holloway notes, begs for that same attentiveness in the performing. This becomes more obvious with each new listen, enfolding us in the depths of a music that breathes as it sings.

John Holloway: Der Türken Anmarsch – Biber/Muffat (ECM New Series 1837)


Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber
Georg Muffat
Der Türken Anmarsch

John Holloway violin
Aloysia Assenbaum organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Recorded July 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Many of the musicians we know and adore come to us only through recorded media. They step into a studio, bear their souls into a digital void, and send the results out into a world of ears. These blessed creators may seem immortal to us, for even when their bodies are gone they continue living through the art they have gifted to humanity. Such thoughts weighed on my mind when I first listened to Der Türken Anmarsch, for in addition to signing off a fourteen-year project by baroque violinist John Holloway to engage the fascinations of composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), it was the last recording to feature Holloway’s wife, organist Aloysia Assenbaum, who along with harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen fashioned the most distinctive continuo in Baroque music.

My first Biber encounter came via Monica Hugget’s phenomenal Birds, Beasts and Battles recording on Channel Classics. I was immediately enlivened by its bold strokes and programmatic flair. Yet for this program, Holloway and company offer us five sonatas by the Bohemian-Austrian master in a more devotional vein, along with another by contemporary Georg Muffat (1653-1704). The former’s Sonata “Victori der Christen” in A minor sets the spiritual tone, through which shines the depth and complexity of his faith. Its ebb-and-flow energies enchant from the first. Here, as throughout, the rich continuo hovers like an energy waiting to be unleashed in the overflow of trills that spills from the violin’s gut strings. The remaining four Biber sonatas are culled from his 1681 Sonatae Violino solo. The opening birdcalls of the Sonata I in A major take full advantage of the scordatura so favored by the composer. Rocking a fulcrum of speed and lethargy, it explores modes at once Monteverdian and ahead of their time. The D-dorian Sonata II showcases Holloway’s dynamic range, as in an early passage for which his playing blends so well with the organ that a ghostly, clarinet-like overtone is created. The Sonata V in E minor has by far the most attention-grabbing introduction of the set. Like its cousins, it alternates between slow and fast, never staying in one mode for too long and thereby emphasizing merits of both. Biber’s melodic lines are always so flexible. They circle, splitting themselves into leaders and followers, ascending and descending as they do in the A-major Sonata VIII, which scales a hilly landscape into the roiling plains of Muffat’s Sonata Violino solo in D major. Its stunning melodies sound at first familiar, only to carry the secrets of places lost to us. It is both the end of its own cycle and of the album as a whole, a masterpiece truly on par with Biber’s unflagging virtuosity and inventive embodiments.

Holloway deftly mixes styles and tones, at times getting a rustic sound out of his D string while soaring effervescently on the E. Yet what ultimately makes him such a consummate performer is that, unlike some, who despite their great talents tend to embellish to the point of distraction, he brings something raw and unfettered to his studied approach, which is only intensified through the somehow gentle ferocity of his style. When we hear someone like Holloway we can truly appreciate the amount of embellishment already encoded into the music of this richly productive era. And when Assenbaum unfurls the final carpet as faders escort the music on its way from the chamber, we can take comfort in knowing that through such vital recordings as this the art of her and others like her will live in our hearts and minds so long as music is loved.

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.

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.

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas (ECM New Series 1909/10 & 1926/27)

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo
as played by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer

Recorded July and September 2004, Propstei St. Gerold (Holloway)
25-29 September 2001, Lockenhaus, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, and 10-15 March 2002, Riga (Kremer)
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann (Holloway) and Niels Foelster (Kremer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher (Holloway) and Helmut Mühle (Kremer)

I first heard Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on vinyl under the bow of Thomas Zehetmair in his awe-inspiring Teldec recording, which remains my interpretation (and format) of choice. Ever since Zehetmair signed with ECM, I have constantly wondered what untold pleasures a repeat performance for the label might bring. Sadly, this has yet to be realized. Thankfully, however, ECM listeners have two complementary representations to choose from, and for this reason I review them side by side.

Looking Back
As one of the world’s foremost Baroque violinists, John Holloway brings four decades of intimate engagement with these masterworks to the proverbial table. Working from the original autograph score, Holloway takes meticulous care in observing every detail of articulation as a means of arguing for the composer’s own deeply informed knowledge of the instrument. His supple playing and humble approach make for one of those rare “historically informed” performances that actually dusts off the ravages of time and breathes cleanly rather than calling attention to its antiquity. Not only does he bring a visceral robustness to the Adagios and a refreshing regularity to the Prestos, but he also makes sure that every tempo in between is given its own dynamic quality.

I have always cherished the Allemanda of the B minor Partita over all, as it is the last piece I learned to play on the violin before I abandoned the instrument to focus on training my voice. It is typically the standard I go by when encountering a new version for the first time and I am proud to report that Holloway draws from it a wealth of seductive material for our auditory perusal. He adopts a similar posture in the Fuga of the A minor Sonata and in the Siciliana of the G minor sonata, both of which scintillate like dark pools in moonlight. But the true gem of this collection is the D minor Partita, where we encounter one of the most heartrending Sarabandes imaginable, an absolutely resplendent Giga, and as finely executed a Ciaccona as one could hope for. The C major Sonata brings out another exemplary performance, especially in the haunting vulnerability injected into the Allegro assai. The E major Partita is pitch-perfect. Its immediately recognizable Preludio shines with renewed verve in Holloway’s hands.

Looking Ahead
What can one say about Gidon Kremer? He is one of the leading innovators among contemporary classical performers, having inspired a wealth of commissioned music and a somewhat controversial discography of variable projects. Kremer first recorded these pieces for Philips in 1980 and returns to them here in a self-professed “final statement” on Bach. As any avid Kremer listener can expect, this interpretation is at once fiercely idiosyncratic and deeply aware of its roots. His G minor Sonata is appropriately subdued and sets an introspective tone for the entire performance. Kremer truly stands out in the fast movements, such as in the Double Presto of the B minor Partita and the delicately executed Allegro assai of C major Sonata, where he is able to put his dynamic energy on full display. He also puts his “GK” stamp on the more dance-like movements, such as his ravishing Tempo di Borea from the B minor Partita and the Gavotte en Rondeau of the E major Partita. This is not meant to imply, of course, that he is without sensitivity. Under Kremer’s agile fingers the Andante of the A minor Sonata weeps with unrivaled ardor, the Sarabanda of the D minor Partita stumbles with an unusually supplicatory air, and his C major Sonata Adagio brings a whole new sense of tortured emotion to a movement so often played with reserve. Kremer revels in the rhythmic possibilities afforded to him by the score, stretching out as many moth-eaten holes in its musical fabric as he can, so as to emphasize its polyphonic structure and harmonic integrity. He also shows a predilection for sharp attacks. Witness, for example, his crisp Ciaccona, which punctures the ether with the power of a thunderclap. And what of my beloved B minor Allemanda? It has taken some getting used to, but I can now appreciate Kremer’s halted style and flawless tuning, and the liveliness he brings to this somber dance is uniquely his own.

I would never venture to say which of these performances is “better” than the other. Holloway plays at period pitch, while Kremer opts for a modern tuning, resulting in two entirely different experiences. Holloway’s opaque sonorities become Kremer’s airy glitter. These are both recordings to be savored and revisited. The reverberant acoustics and attentive microphone placement put Holloway’s a head above the rest in sound quality, while its somber undertones speak to the violinist’s humility in the face of Bach’s complex symmetries. Then again, Kremer’s staggering attention to detail and variation prove once again why he is one of the instrument’s sharpest proponents. I can only recommend both for their technical spread and complementary attitudes. Not to mention that the pieces themselves belong on any music lover’s shelf.