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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.