Johann SchmelzerAn ECM debut for an extraordinary violinist and one of the foremost musicians in the field of historically-informed performance. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has written of the "breathtaking technical virtuosity and incredible variety of tone" that John Holloway produces from his instrument, adding that his sense of "musical gesture and playing style open up visionary perspectives". The New York Times has suggested that the implications of his playing "demand a rethinking of performance styles in our time."
On this recording, Holloway, focuses upon the Sonatae unarum fidium of J.H. Schmelzer in a programme that is framed by pieces with clear connections to them, the Chiacona of Antonio Bertali, and a sonata of unproven attribution.
The ensemble sound established by the violinist and keyboard playing colleagues Aloysia Assenbaum and Lars Ulrik Mortensen is at once arresting and very fresh. Holloway: "I wanted to try a basso continuo sound which is almost never heard in baroque solo instrumental music: harpsichord and organ played simultaneously by two players, each realising the figured bass to the full potential of their instruments. That both instruments existed in the same place in the 17th century and were used together in later music - for example Bach - is sure... One of our ambitions with this recording is to demonstrate a case for this extraordinarily rich sound in instrumental music of this style. The collaborative spirit this demands of the players is immense: agreeing exactly upon the harmonic implications of the bass figures - an arduous procedure involving detailed reference to contemporary sources - was only the beginning of an intense process of experiment and refinement."
Antonio Bertali's Chiacona makes a sparkling, invigorating introduction. Born in Verona in or around 1605 he arrived at the Imperial Court in Vienna in (probably) 1624 and quickly established himself as a composer of music for special occasions and a virtuoso violinist. Much of his work is now lost, but his operas, oratorios and sacred and secular vocal works, as well as his instrumental compositions once found an enthusiastic audience. Unsurprisingly in the light of the Chiacona, which seems the very definition of "festive" music.
After this vivid scene-setting, Holloway and partners move into the more rarefied atmospheres of Schmelzer's Sonatae unarum fidium, which the violinist describes as "elegiac, meditative, serene improvisatory...The aura of contemplation and the sheer beauty of the somewhat introspective sound-world Schmelzer has created has few contemporary rivals, and perhaps only one true successor - the 'Mysteriensonaten' by Biber." To the Neapolitan bishop Carlo Carafa, the work's dedicatee, Schmelzer wrote, punningly: "Et si Unitatem Fidei requiris, non Fidei tantum sed & Fidium exhibeo dum nasce unarum Fidium Sonatae Professionis meae tesseram in pubblico priduco" (And if you require proof of faith, I'll show you not fidelity but my fiddle. Thus were born the 'Sonatae Unarum Fidium' with which I give public utterance to my profession.)
It is believed that Schmelzer, born in Lower Austria in about 1620, may have studied with Bertali on arriving in Vienna. There is evidence that he began service in the court chapel of Vienna around 1635, graduating to violinist in the court orchestra in 1649. A favourite of Leopold I, he was appointed Vice-Kappellmeister of the Imperial Court in 1671, rising to the position of Kappellmeister eight years later. Schmelzer knew and encouraged Biber, twenty years his junior, recommending him to the prince-bishop of Olomouc as composer, violinist and viola da gamba player. Biber's Sonatae violino solo of 1681 is held to be an hommage to Schmelzer's Sonatae unarum fidium, written 17 years earlier.
Of the "anonymous" piece included on this disc, John Holloway says. "After the Schmelzer sonatas we close with a beautiful short scordatura sonata from the same Kromeriz Library where the Bertali and the Unarum fidium sonatas are to be found. This sonata has yet to be attributed, but certainly sounds and feels like Biber -a highly plausible link between the Schmelzer sonatas and the 'Mysteriensonaten' by Biber which they so clearly influenced in all respects other than the use of scordatura."
John Holloway has toured extensively as soloist and with the Academy of Ancient Music, the Taverner Players, Freiberger Barockorchester, and many other ensembles and has participated in numerous concerts and recordings with the Les Arts Florissants and the Taverner Consort. Since relinquishing his position as concert master of both the London Classical Players and the Taverner Players - groups he had led since their formation in the 1970s - he has concentrated on chamber music projects with ensembles including the Trio Veracini (with Lars Ulrik Mortensen and David Watkin).