Pandolfi: The Violin Sonatas of 1660 (CD review)
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.
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.