SCHMELZER The Emperor's Fiddler
If Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s name comes first to mind when contemplating brilliant 17th-century Austrian violinists, consider also that of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, who predated Biber by a generation. The Australian violinist and musicologist David Irving made a careful study of Schmelzer’s 1664 Sonatae unarum fidium before committing them to CD but he isn’t the first; Andrew Manze recorded the six sonatas with Romanesca (Nigel North and John Toll) as long ago as 1995. Each of these recordings includes a further item: here the organist John O’Donnell offers us an impressive Passacaglia by Johann Caspar Kerll, Schmelzer’s colleague at the imperial court of Leopold I.
To best reflect the regal setting for the earliest performances of these works, Irving has gathered together a rich continuo ensemble of four musicians and the resulting array of ever-changing accompaniments is evidence of their close collaboration. The exotic resonance of the triple harp and lirone (an instrument Leopold evidently played) add particular lustre to some of the musical textures. Indeed, as the sonatas are composed of sections rather than movements, the musicians have only the slightest of pauses between them to regroup. The clarity and warmth of the recorded sound is a pleasure to experience.
Irving plays with a certain seriousness and polished technical perfection that many discerning listeners will find admirable. If, however, you seek a freer, more improvisatory, rhetorical interpretation of this music, Manze’s intimately conceived performances still have the power to enthral.