Whatever colour there is to be had on the baroque fiddle you can be sure that Andrew Manze has painted it, and especially in the iconoclastic world of early Italian violin repertoire. Little of this music caused much of a stir outside native territory in the early years of the seventeenth century, such was its regional and experimental aesthetic. Yet all this racing around, stopping and starting, flirting and flopping and breaking shackles must have changed the landscape irrevocably for those Italian cognoscenti whose musical ideals were rooted in the classical abstraction of prima prattica polyphony. This esoteric world of idiomatic virtuoso innovation and curious interpolations of modern operatic declamation is hardly any more mainstream now than it was then; there is often the suspicion that this freewheeling early sonata genre, with its loose sectional improvisatory narrative, is something of an amateur’s pastime – the scribblings of dexterous instrumentalists who, in a more conservative environment, would probably have failed to pen a passable four-part fantasy. Perhaps that’s stretching a point, but with so many of these pieces by the likes of Cima and Castello, we are left with a formative style that is, on paper, going nowhere and with arguably only ephemeral qualities.
Yet we have in Andrew Manze and his Romanesca continuo team performers with a rare capacity for imaginative invention and varied nuance, presenting the most persuasive elements of these kaleidoscopic theatricals. There are indeed some thrilling moments. The range of violinistic techniques, satisfyingly founded in a balance of historical knowledge and artistic intuition, is often quite hypnotic, as in the Corradini Sonata, La Sfondrata. But this is music based on ‘moments’; the sense of tonal direction, and how harmonic language irradiates it, seems far less compelling than it does in the next generation of Schmelzer and Biber. If that’s the way history was, then so be it, so long as it remains in its own Pandora’s box. That said, the Fontana works are charming and it is pleasing to hear Manze rely (as in the balletic Sonata quinta) on the unadorned shaping of line, without feeling the need to make a meal of it. The performances are exemplary. Nigel North is a supreme listener to others and John Toll gives a memorably characterized