Schmelzer: Barockes Welttheater (CD review)

Freiburger BarockConsort. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902087.

The opening percussion sets the tone for the album. You know in a flash you're in for one wild and wonderful ride through the seventeenth century.

So, who was this guy Schmelzer, and why should we care? He was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680), an Austrian composer and violinist who eventually worked his way up to serve as Kapellmeister ("conductor," "choirmaster," "music maker") in the Habsburg court. Why the interest in him? Because the Freiburger BarockConsort specializes in the music of less-frequently played composers of the seventeenth century, and Schmelzer fits the role perfectly. At least, he's not frequently played these days. In his own day, as a violinist he was apparently quite popular and as a composer had a significant influence on later musicians and composers of the era.

Titled Barockes Welttheater ("Baroque World Theater"), the album offers eleven of Schmelzer's dance suites, ballets, and sonatas, which the Freiburger ensemble chose to represent a typical evening's entertainment in the Habsburg day.

The program opens with Serenata con altre arie ("Serenade with other tunes") in five movements. The piece demonstrates Schmelzer's versatility and the BarockConsort's adaptability and virtuosity on a variety of instruments. You'll hear a kettledrum, bells, guitar, just about everything in here in addition to violins, violas, and lute.

Next, the Polnishche Sackpfeiffen ("Polish Bagpipes") sounds just as its title suggests, with a wonderfully earthy tenor to the proceedings.

Sonata amabilis a 4 ("Amiable Sonata") is just that, too, an amiable, affable, good-natured piece of music in a pastoral vein, the violin sweetly wafting in and out of the viola accompaniment. And so it goes, the selections alternating between bright and lively works and more serene, even courtly numbers.

The final piece, the Sonata in D "Battaglia," bears special mention in that it's the most obvious example of program music on the disc. It describes in musical terms a battlefield encounter, complete with a solemn introduction, full-on combat, and a final resolution. The battle rages until we hear only the military drum left standing. The work predates Beethoven's Wellington's Victory by nearly a century and a half.

Interestingly, too, a booklet note tells us that "a particular speciality of seventeenth-century Habsburg music was 'scordatura.' This term derived from the Italian 'scordare' means the 'mistuning' of one or more strings to a different note from the normal one. This practice makes it easier to play chords and alters the sound of the violin. Sometimes, as a special effect, a string was even mistuned in the course of a sonata."

Anyway, the Freiburger BarockConsort are an accomplished set of musicians, but don't expect them to play with the elegance of an Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Philharmonia Baroque, Academy of Ancient Music, or English Concert. The ten musicians of the Freiburger BarockConsort, members of the Freiburger Baroqueorchestra, play in quite a festive and exhilarating fashion (in the manner of Jordi Savall's Les Concert des Nations, for example), meaning they make up for any minor lack of refinement with the ultimate joy and enthusiasm of their music making. Enjoy the fun they're having.

Because the BarockConsort are only ten members strong, you would expect them to sound reasonably clear on disc, and you'd be correct. Recorded in Freiburg in 2010, the disc's sonic presentation spreads the players well across the sound stage, with each of the instruments lucidly delineated. Yet there is also a warm, resonant acoustic involved to provide a sense of realism to the occasion. A broad dynamic range, strong impact, good depth, quick transient attack, and a wide frequency response add icing to the cake.

Harmonia Mundi do up the package with attractive graphics; a well-written booklet insert in English, French, and German; and a light-cardboard slipcover for the jewel case.


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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 John 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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