American Record Guide

REVIEW: Johann Rosenmüller in Exile

Johann Rosenmüller (c. 1618-84) was an extraordinarily fine composer—highly regarded by his contemporaries, including Telemann—but he had his share of difficulty. After escaping from prison in Leipzig on charges of sodomy, he found employment in Venice. The motets and sonatas on this release were composed in his period of self-exile, and it is called “Johann Rosenmüller in Exile”. 

This is the fourth recording of Rosenmüller’s music I have reviewed since 2011, and I have not been disappointed yet. In fact, I was so taken by Ensemble Masques’s performance of sonatas from his 1682 Nuremberg collection (ATMA 2660; Sept/Oct 2013) that I soon performed some of them with my own ensemble. This release by Acronym includes sonatas in E minor (No. 8), G minor (No. 4), and A minor (No. 6) from yet another of Rosenmüller’s publications—the Sonate da camera (Venice, 1667), and I am happy to report that they are as exquisite as his later sonatas. Like them they are composed in a single, multi-sectional movement. The major difference between them is that this earlier collection consists of a series of dances, as one would expect of chamber sonatas. Their charm, therefore, stems from frequent transitions from one dance-inspired affect to another, to say nothing of the gorgeous harmonies and expressive use of dissonance. 

In the capable hands of these excellent musicians, they simply could not sound better. Acronym’s 2016 release of sonatas by Krieger, Bertali and the like was brilliant (Olde Focus 906; Sept/Oct 2016). And their recording of Johann Christoph Pezel’s Alphabet Sonatas was one of my Critics’ Choices for 2014 (Olde Focus 903; July/Aug 2014). 

The motets are as beautiful as the sonatas. The program includes Domine Cor Meum Jam Ardet Impatiens, Aude Quid Times Gens Christo Dicata, Salve Mi Jesu, Pater Misericordiae, and Ascendit Invictissimus Salvator. Martha H. Brundage explains in her notes that Rosenmüller’s motets usually begin with a sonata; there follows a sequence of arias and recitatives alternating with short instrumental ritornellos. Adding the voice to the string ensemble seems to further unleash Rosenmüller’s creative genius, to explore new realms of expression distinguished by sudden shifts of rhythm, harmony, and flights of fiuratura in both the voice and violins. Jesse Blumberg’s rich baritone makes an ideal partner for the violin playing of Johanna Novom, Edwin Huizinga, Adriane Post, and Beth Wenstrom. Texts and notes are in English.

Colorado Public Radio

By Jeff Zumfelde

Posted: March 1, 2017

REVIEW: Johann Rosenmüller in Exile

The period music ensemble ACRONYM acts more like a contemporary music group. They call themselves a band, and that feels like a true description and not an affectation. While dedicated to period practice, their playing is not fussy, mannered or artificial. Moreover, the group has focused on recording works by lesser known composers of the early baroque, bringing to light delightfully obscure music. Consider the case of Johann Rosenmuller, who would have been Cantor of Thomaskirche in Leipzig (JS Bach’s future job) in the 1650s but for a scandal that landed him in prison.  He escaped, fled to Italy, played trombone at St. Mark’s in Venice, and eventually became composer for the Ospedale della Pieta where Vivaldi was later employed. His music is no less intriguing than his life. It’s loaded with harmonic surprises and memorable melodies. I enthusiastically recommend all of ACRONYM’s previous releases.

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The Strad

By Tim Homfray

Posted: December 2016

REVIEW: Oddities and Trifles: The Very Peculiar Music of Giovanni Valentini. Sonata and canzonas for strings

Giovanni Valentini was born in Venice (or thereabouts) in 1582 (ditto).  He worked in the courts of Warsaw and Vienna and composed a vast amount, but a lot of it wasn't published, and today his music is scattered around Europe.  Acronym (the 'Altmusik Camerata Resurrecting Old - but New to You - Music'), a twelve-strong string band, has tracked down, and in some cases reconstructed, the works on this CD, only one of which, they think, has been recorded before. Valentini was an innovator, with a taste for harmonic and metrical experiment. His liking for chromatic coloration and lingering suspensions is immediately apparent in the opening Sonata no.5 in G minor, switching between slow and energetic, with crisply articulated playing. Many of these works are characterised by constant alternation of contrasting elements, now solemn, now dancing. The writing is rich and captivating, frequently with terrific snapping rhythms.

The 17 tracks here, written for various forces, mostly last between two and five minutes. One of them is longer, a Sonata in D major that runs to over nine minutes. Violinist Beth Wenstrom plays it with vitality and eloquent phrasing, as well as agility: the writing is constantly inventive, sometimes technically demanding and strikingly chromatic. There is some rather wonderful music on this CD, played with textural clarity and warmth, aided by a fine recording.

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Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Posted: January 27, 2017

Rosenmüller in Exile.  The backstory is almost as rich as the music in this new recording by the early-music group Acronym and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  Johann Rosenmüller (1619-84) was one of Leipzig's most promising composers until he was arrested for sodomy, escaped from prison, and fled to Venice, where he was a trombonist at St. Mark's Basilica and rebuilt his reputation as a composer.  He wrote this collection of sonatas for string ensemble and cantatas for baritone voice while in exile.  The music is excellent, reflecting some operatic influences of the early baroque period.  Surfaces are poised and glossy, but one need not listen far to hear all kinds of under-the-surface restlessness and anguish.  Curiously, the pieces end almost casually, with a "to-be-continued" quality.  Performances are intelligent and animated.  Sound production is first-class.

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New York Classical Review

By George Grella

Posted: January 16, 2017

"The playing Sunday stood out for its gusto and vitality. There was an utter lack of mannerism or curatorial preciousness. This was music played as part of a living tradition, with a sense of normalcy that is the foundation of authenticity.... The music is gorgeous and emotionally haunting, and ACRONYM performed it with moving grace."

Full Article Here

Philadelphia Inquirer REVIEW: David Stearns

Les Canards Chantants and Acronym bring unknown madrigals out of obscurity

By David Patrick Stearns, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC

POSTED: February 16, 2016

Les Canards Chantants, the Philadelphia area's newest early-music vocal ensemble, collaborates constantly - this time with instrumental group Acronym in a concert of unknown madrigals heard after 400 years of confounding obscurity.

Aimez-vous Giovanni Valentini (1582-1649)?

You would after the Saturday program at the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn. The madrigals are having their modern premieres in a brief tour that started in New York and ends at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Taplin Auditorium in Princeton.

Historically, the madrigals were the first published with sophisticated instrumental parts. On a musical and emotional level, the pieces were the work of a major personality - stimulating, affecting and surprisingly modern.

The Venice-born, Vienna-based Valentini was one of the most successful composers of his day, and also among the most restless. None of the seven madrigals behaved the same way. The first, "See Cloudless May," had the voices ricocheting in numerous directions in a chipper evocation of spring. "These Tears of Mine" was a labyrinth in which every voice had its own journey through darkness, somehow arriving at the same end point at the same time.

"Extinguished in my heart" had a highly charged, almost operatic relationship between music and words that rivaled Valentini's contemporary Monteverdi. "Who Feeds Your Hopes" had the voices divided into sections, often in competition, and then converging with escalating emotional effect.

Interspersed between the vocal works were instrumental sonatas played by the rich-textured 12-member Acronym, which employs a lirone - a seldom-seen missing link between the cello and 12-string guitar. Some of the sonatas had three distinct sections that would become standard 100 years later. One used a fugal counterpoint based on dark, minor-mode descending scales suggesting British composer John Dowland on the verge of suicide.

Of course, this richness wouldn't be apparent without sympathetic, well-played performances from Acronym, whose live performances were more emotionally charged than on its new Valentini album,Oddities & Trifles. The six-voice Canards are highly animated performers, playing off of each other with visual theatricality that bordered on mugging, but never at the expense of elegant vocalism.

And what could be a better setting than the Glencairn Museum with its sumptuously archaic decor?

dstearns@phillynews.com.

Iowa Public Radio - Best of 2015 List feat. ACRONYM!

Giovanni Valentini: Oddities & Trifles: the Very Peculiar Instrumental Music of Giovanni Valentini -ACRONYM Ensemble (Olde Focus 904)- Born in Venice circa 1582, Valentini became the leading musician in Vienna in the early 1600s. The music on this disc is wildly inventive - not at all what you expect - but little of it has been recorded before. I find it hard to imagine better playing than is offered by this 12-member band, some of whom have performed in IPR's studio in Cedar Falls.

 

American Record - Valentini

"Using the eye-catching title, “Oddities & Trifles”—with the subtitle “The Very Peculiar Instrumental Music of Giovanni Valentini”—the ACRONYM ensemble seems to place this disc on the leftovers table at the local fundraising yard sale. It would be mixed in where you’d find knick-knacks and garden ornaments that defy categorization and have a very cheap or pay-what-you-wish price tag. Having written that as a metaphor, I realize that in fact there is a pay-what-you-wish aspect to ACRONYM’s work. More about that later. For now, I want you to know that this program is neither odd nor a trifle and that you should get it.

There’s a vigor in the playing that makes the listener believe in the music and the interpretations. There are 10 string players in ACRONYM, one plucked instrument player (theorbo and guitar), and one keyboard (organ and harpsichord). The players revel in their expertise with excellent swagger, depth, power, and elegance. One can imagine smiles exchanged in the five-part Sonata 8, for example, as the players pirouette through meter changes, stop-on-a-dime turns, and rapid tempos with deft precision. The sound is full and engaging (see Sonata 5), expertly recorded to capture a compelling and rich vibrancy.

Giovanni Valentini (c 1582-1649) was a prolific composer across many genres (including opera, madrigals, and oratorio) and he held the highest positions in several courts in Europe. The 17 pieces here come from manuscript sources or from the 1609 collection that was Valentini’s first published opus. Two sonatas that can “plausibly be attributed” to Valentini are included, and as far as the ensemble is aware, only one piece in the program has been recorded before. Yes, there are certainly some unusual harmonies and—dare I say it—”oddities” in the writing (see Sonata 5 and the anonymous manuscript violin sonata), but the confidence and conviction of the ensemble renders them a pleasure, not a puzzle.

This is ACRONYM’s third CD, and it’s very nice to see our ARG colleague Charles Brewer given the ensemble’s thanks for “excellent transcriptions of several of the manuscript sonatas”. Peter Loewen and I praised ACRONYM’s programs of Pezel and Bertali (NewFocus 903, J/A 2014 & 901, J/A 2014). As for other recordings of Valentini, Mr Loewen, Ardella Crawford, and I have liked a range of vocal and instrumental releases: instrumental “bizzarrias” (Hungaroton 31864, N/D 2000), motets and madrigals (Christophorus 77238, J/F 2002), and courtly vocal music (CPO 777533, J/F 2012).

I admire attention to detail in packaging too: the booklet and cover design use strikingly modern 1624 robot-like etchings that seem from the “wrong” century (not unlike the 14th-Century scissor arches in Wells Cathedral, England); photos of musical sources illustrate the booklet essay; and the players dress for their photo as if for a performance in colors that match the graphic design. Please note how ACRONYM supports itself and read details in the booklet of how you can support them.

-- Catherine Moore, © 2015 American Record Guide

PARADISE: INSTRUMENTAL SONATAS OF ANTONIO BERTALI

Acronym (Edwin Huizinga & Beth Wenstrom violin, Adriane Post and Karina Schmitzviolin/viola, Kyle Miller viola, Paul Dwyer violoncello, Loren Ludwig viola da gamba, Kivie Cahn-Lipman viola da gamba, violoncello & lirone, Doug Balliett violone, Simon Martyn-Ellis theorbo and Elliot Figg harpsichord/organ)
64:05
Olde Focus Recordings FCR901

Anyone who knows me or is regular reader of these pages will be well acquainted with my partiality for music from 17th-century Vienna, so it will come as no surprise that I love this recording. In fact, I had no idea the CD existed, but I had spent many evenings a few months ago watching Acronym’s live performances on youtube. They tackle everything from sonatas for two soloists (either two violins or violin and gamba) to the three works in eight parts. The latter include what is effectively a prototype concerto grosso (and look out for the harmonies when the tutti group join in), a sonatas for two choirs with solo violin and gamba and two ‘filler’ parts (no disrespect to the performers!), and a proper eight-voiced sonata, which is recorded here for the first time. Precise playing and clever positioning of the two treble groups on either side of the bass instruments ensures that all of the lines are clearly audible and the sophistication of Bertali’s fine part-writing comes through, without that ever distracting from the sense of overall shape, of which he was a master. As well as the links below, the album is downloadable (along with a PDF of the booklet note, which details the performers and all the musical sources used) from the recording company’s website; their about page makes for very interesting reading, and musicians with a plan might consider getting involved with them. I’m glad Acronym did and I wholeheartedly recommend this CD to everyone!

Brian Clark

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Classical CDs Weekly Review

Oddities & Trifles: The Very Peculiar Instrumental Music of Giovanni Valentini ACRONYM (New Focus Recordings)

There are moments of such harmonic and rhythmic implausibility on this disc that it’s tempting to conclude that Giovanni Valentini’s music is a smart hoax. But no – he was definitely born in Venice in the late 16th century and may have been taught by Gabrieli. He was also a poet, and became Hofkapellmeister to the Viennese court in 1626, remaining influential in the city until his death in 1649. One of Valentini’s works has a notated part for water-filled clay bird whistles, and having access to enharmonic keyboard instruments (where Bb isnot the same as A#) must have encouraged him to develop a freer approach to harmony.

The amount of legwork which must have gone into planning and researching this release is mindboggling. It would also be worthless if the music presented wasn’t up to scratch. Happily, it is, and this delightful release is one of the most striking things I’ve heard this year. The Sonata a5 which opens proceedings is a case in point: 45 seconds in, we’re simultaneously discombobulated and delighted by a chord progression which would still startle if it was written in the mid 20th century. Sample the descending chromatic melody which dominates the tiny Canzona a6. They’re all performed by the 12-piece string ensemble ACRONYM (you’ll have to read the booklet to find out what the letters stand for), negotiating Valentini’s tricky corners with ease. Violinist Beth Wenstrom is outstanding in a substantial solo sonata, and Elliot Figg’s dainty organ playing in a tiny Echo a3 is marvellous. The disc closes with a startling Sonata a4, full of strange sounds and containing, possibly, the first notated ppp in musical history. Fascinating, and fun - this is one of those discs that you’ll buy multiple copies of and thrust into the hands of friends and relatives.

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Classics Today Review

Oddities & Trifles, Valentini & Acronym

Review by: David Vernier, here.

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Certainly the disc’s title is intriguing. But based on past experience, listening to many recordings with similar hooks where some obscure yet supposedly worthy music just didn’t live up to its billing, the most I expected was an hour of pleasantly undemanding background entertainment. My only previous encounter with the music of Giovanni Valentini (c.1582-1649) was a 2001 review of a disc of vocal works (see reviews archive), and I was only marginally aware of the ensemble Acronym (although I was familiar with a few of its members, who also play in other groups).

None of this admittedly minimal cognizance prepared me for the absolutely brilliant performances or the fascinating, consistently engaging, and yes, somewhat “peculiar” music–expertly recorded–that emerged as these exceptional musicians began the first track, a G minor sonata in five parts. Within the first 30 seconds–the delightful oddity of Valentini’s writing had already showed itself–my imagined expectation for “undemanding background entertainment” had turned to rapt, seriously focused listening.

The 12-member Acronym bills itself as a “Baroque String Band”, and that’s exactly what it is; and if you’ve ever been queasy about or dismissive of the sound and substance of period-instrument performance, set your concerns aside and listen to these virtuoso string players–their instruments include gambas, violins, violas, cello, violone, theorbo, and harpsichord–as they play the daylights out of music you didn’t even know you loved. Entertainment, yes; this is exactly what this music is supposed to be about, with its frequent “metric eccentricities”, occasional “whimsical motivic material” and “unprepared modulations”, and often surprising chromaticism. The Acronym musicians are not only are aware of these devices, they fully exploit them in the most affecting and skillful manner, neither overplaying nor apologizing for an expressive utterance or effect.

As you listen you sense an exceptional level of communication is going on among the players–there’s no other way to achieve the remarkable coordination of intricate lines, phrasing, and dynamics–and, owing to a fortuitous coincidence, I can assure you that this is the case. Just as I began listening to this recording I noticed that Acronym would be performing in a summer concert series only a few miles from where I live. They didn’t play any Valentini that evening–the varied program of solo-vocal and instrumental works consisted of, if anything, music even more unusual and often astonishingly virtuosic, by composers such as Poglietti, Thieme, Drese, and Bertali, than Valentini’s work–but to see these musicians play (and play with such passion) is to confirm the strong and powerful connectedness of eyes, body movements, and auditory cues that make the performances here so vital and vibrant.

Finally, to return to the disc’s title, I have one suggestion for prospective listeners: Although the words “oddities” and “peculiar” are to some degree accurate, “trifle” in this case should be taken not in its more common sense–“something of little value or importance”–but would be better regarded in association with something delectable and enticing, such as “a dessert made with spongecake pieces, spread with jam, sprinkled with sherry, and layered with custard, fruit, and whipped cream…”, like this disc, irresistible and well worth indulging.

Pezel: The Alphabet Sonatas

Pezel’s Opus Musicum Sonatarum Praestantissimarum Senis Instrumentis Instructum , or “Musical Publication of the Finest Sonatas for Old/Revered Instruments,” was published in Frankfurt in 1686. It may well have been a joint commission from all of the members of the ancient Six Cities’ Alliance, for a handsome sum was paid for it by each: Bautzen, Görlitz, Lauban, Kamenz, Löbau, and Zittau. Read more Stadtmusikant , or director of instrumental music, in Bautzen, a prestigious post in what was at the time a decent-sized metropolis.) The work consists of 24 sonatas given alphabetical names, such as Sonata Abella in G Major, and Sonata Bacca in D Minor. In addition, there is a final Sonata Ciacona that features an eight-chord bass ostinato in its ripieno sections, which is doubled and extended again by a further four chords for concertato statements. It’s a fairly massive single movement of its variational type for its time and place, though such things were more common in Elizabethan keyboard music. 


The Alphabet Sonatas themselves are actually proto-sonatas, meaning that they’re a grab bag of movements strung together, often in the same key. They descend from the first wave of violinist-composers who emerged from the late 16th century courts of the Sforza who ruled Milan, and the Este who ruled Ferrara. But where those Italian sonatas mixed dances, highly imitative contrapuntal movements, and dramatic recitative, often with highly chromatic harmonic progressions, Pezel’s sonatas include homophonic dances, less complex examples of counterpoint, and the occasional voluntary, all of it less venturesome harmonically. The composer’s previous experience as a Kunstgeiger (city-employed fiddler) and later Stadtpfeifer (member of a typical loud ensemble, with cornetts and sackbuts) in Leipzig can be heard in the distinctively instrumental character of wind, brass, or strings in various movements; though the work was published in seven string parts, with continuo furnished by bassoon and an unspecified additional instrument. 


As to why Pezel would give his sonatas feminine names drawn from Greco-Roman history and mythology: Like many academics since the late Middle Ages, he relished showing off knowledge garnered from the Attic Greeks and Romans. So the Sonata Dejanira refers to the tragically unconfident woman who was married to Heracles, while the Sonata Quinquatria highlights the Roman festival held in honor of the goddess Minerva. None of this has any bearing on the music itself. 


Acronym is a string ensemble formed in 2012 specifically for this CD project. But as only nine of its 12 members perform here, and other projects including tours are underway, we can safely assume the group has taken on a life separate from Pezel’s work. It was still common enough during Pezel’s lifetime for music to be performed in any variety of arrangements, reduced or augmented, as circumstances warranted. Here, the continuo is provided by either of two performers who handle the honors for theorbo and guitar, and harpsichord and organ, while there’s some trading off among viols and violas—as Pezel didn’t specify da bracchia or da gamba. 


The performances of the livelier dance movements have a fine rhythmic bounce, especially the start of theSonata Nabathea. Any unison playing on this release has a rich, full sound. Individual instrumentalists can at times display an unattractive tone, however, made more evident because none of the performers use vibrato. (As Sergiu Luca once told me, just because you don’t use vibrato doesn’t mean you have to display an ugly tone. Quite the opposite. You don’t have vibrato to cover for you, and have to work to improve your sound.) TheSonata Ciacona exposes this mercilessly, with a very occasional note tonally off-center. Most of the playing aside from this is first-rate, while tempos are varied and well-sustained. There’s an attractive legato in slower movements, and a judicious amount of accenting on both the beat and at cadences. 


A final word or 111 about the liner notes. Written by one of Acronym’s musicians, they evidently draw upon some historians of Leipzig who are very much of the Annales School, emphasizing cultural matters by way of source studies in surviving town hall records, legal documents, etc. It’s a pleasure to read someone take such joy in relating more than the usual born/educated/married/died information, right down to the social distinctions between the various music guilds: the Kunstgeigeren, Stadtpfeiferen , lowly Bierfiedlers , and the haughty trumpet players, the top-of-the-heap Kammeradschaft —even to mentioning the brawls on record that resulted when some Stadtpfeiferen employed trombones provocatively shaped and played like trumpets, but with alternative names. 


All in all, these are successful readings of attractive music. Recommended.