Excellent Schmelzer From The Freiburger BarockConsort

Review by: John Greene


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

Since their first meeting, Leopold I’s professional as well personal admiration of Johann Schmelzer grew exponentially. Schmelzer quickly rose through the ranks of Leopold’s court and in 1665 was appointed imperial ballet composer, writing practically all of the ballet music for the operas performed in Vienna during the second half of the 17th century. The Freiburger BarockConsort (members of the Freiburger Barockorchester) include three brief, rarely heard Balletto examples here, though their program consists mostly of Schmelzer’s more familiar, signature sonatas and programmatic fare.

The program’s opening Serenata con altre arie serves as a brilliant overture, beginning with a striking drum roll joined shortly by dramatic rhythmic strings that eventually give way to a series of widely diverse, instrumentally varied dances. It’s a captivating work that previously has received only a few relatively uninspired recorded performances; here the piece finally receives the reading it has long deserved.

Following the Serenata is arguably Schmelzer’s greatest hit—his wonderfully imaginative string sonata Polnische Sackpfeiffen (Polish bagpipes). Here the Freiburg orchestra faces stiff competition, and while the performance is quite good, in comparison it lacks that extra measure of adventure and excitement necessary to be included among the best. Reinhard Goebel and the Musica Antiqua Köln’s earlier 1977 performance (EMI Reflexe) still rhythmically evolves and blooms as none has since—and the violins in imitation of the bagpipe sonorities never have been surpassed. Likewise, their very differently conceived later performance (DG Archiv), laced with often thrilling, rapid dynamic and tempo fluctuations, is equally compelling. More recently, Armonico Tributo Austria (CPO) also contends nicely with evocative fiddling that rivals the Köln orchestra’s earlier version in programmatic allure.

Among the other well known Schmelzer masterpieces included are his Sonata IV a 6 in A major from his Sacro profanus concentus musicus 1662, the Sonata a due Violini scordati, as well as his rousing Sonata a 7 (Battaglia). All receive engaging, respectable performances throughout. The three ballets— Balletto di Pastori e Ninfe, Balletto primo di Spoglia di Papagi, and Balletto di Zeffiri—function much the same way as they did as respites during the operas, though here serving as interludes between the more playful sonatas and other works.

Harmonia Mundi’s sound is magnificent, with exceptional dynamic range (if your woofers are capable and your amp has the headroom, the percussion here is among the most life-like I’ve ever heard) and remarkably convincing spatial clarity. If you’re a fan of the composer and/or period, you would do well to consider adding this remarkably satisfying offering to your collection. A delight.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Barockes Welttheater
Reference Recording: see review

    Serenata con altre arie; Polnische Sackpfeiffen; Sonata amabilis a 4; Balletto di Pastori e Ninfe; Sonata a due in D minor; Balletto primo di Spoglia di Papagi; Sonata IV a 6 in A minor; Variationen uber "La bella pastora"; Balletto di Zeffiri; Sonata a due Voilini scordati; Sonata (Battaglia) a 7

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