Pandolfi: The Violin Sonatas of 1660 (CD review)

Mark Fewer, violin; Myron Lutzke, violoncello; Kenneth Stowik, harpsichord. Smithsonian Chamber Music Society FoM 36-802.

If you don't recognize the name of Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (c. 1630 - c. 1669), don't feel bad. Scholars didn't rediscover his music until 1901, and even then nobody in the music world took him too seriously until the 1980's. If you did recognize his name, give yourself ten extra points and move to the head of the room.

The fact is, we know little about Pandolfi Mealli. All we have are two collections of his music, the two sets of violin sonatas (with harpsichord or, as here, with harpsichord and cello) labeled Opuses 3 and 4.  Maybe he wrote a lot more music than that, maybe not. Maybe he wrote Opuses 1 and 2, maybe not.  Known facts: He worked as a musician at the court of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Karl around 1660, which is about when he published the two collections of sonatas we have here, and he dedicated many of the sonatas to friends, relatives, and patrons.

The term "sonata," incidentally, apparently meant something a little different in Pandolfi's day than it does in our own. Today we think of a sonata as "a composition for one or two instruments, typically in three or four movements in contrasted forms and keys," as the Random House Dictionary puts it. In Pandolfi's time, however, a sonata simply referred to any work written specifically for the violin repertoire and made up of relatively short contrasting sections.

In the case of Opuses 3 and 4, they consist of six sonatas each, with each sonata lasting from three to eight minutes. Although there are tempo variations within the individual sonatas, each of them tends either to favor slow or fast paces; but because of their short length, Paldolfi alternates them for maximum effect. People can debate whether he intended this effect or not, but the fact is that the listener can enjoy each set of Opus numbers as a complete work unto itself. It's rather like listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons as a complete set rather than four separate concertos. Of course, the six sonatas in each of Paldolfi's opuses don't hang together quite as well as Vivaldi's music, but you get the idea.

When the sonatas are in their slow phases, they can range from contemplative to downright melancholy; when they are moving faster, they can appear bright and sprightly. The common denominator is their virtuosity, which the trio of Mark Fewer, violin, Myron Lutzke, cello, and Kenneth Stowik, harpsichord, bring out exquisitely with their exactitude and affection. These performances do not seem like stuffy run-throughs of ancient music but lively, spontaneous interpretations played in a smooth, casual, yet refined and ultraprecise style. Incidentally, this is only the second recording of the complete sonatas in the catalogue and the first one to include a cello.

It's fascinating, really, to note how cultured and flowing the music is, how much more modern it sounds than the seventeenth century. This may be early-to-mid Baroque writing, but the works seem more like the compositions of the late Baroque or possibly early Classical periods. Even though there is nothing about them that stands out like hit-parade favorites, these tunes should appeal to most classical music lovers; especially the way Fewer and his companions play them. The sonatas are charming, almost-lost little gems, notable for their aforementioned virtuosity and for their endless ingenuity and creativity.

The sound, recorded in October of 2008 at the Eglise Saint-Augustin, Mirabel, Quebec, is as ideal as one could want for a trio of players. The performers are simply there, in the room with you, each instrument sounding as clear and natural as it might sound on a stage or in a large room setting, with just enough ambient bloom to provide an added dimension of realism. Spacing, imaging, depth, frequency response, etc., are also ideal. It's some of the best sound I've heard from a chamber group.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa