By Michael Talbot
Posted: May 2015
REVIEW: Italian Sonatas for Few and Many Instruments
We move next to two significant maestri di cappella, both Italians, at the imperial court in the mid-17th century: Giovanni Valentini (c.1582-1649) and his successor Antonio Bertali (1605-69). Seventeen largely unknown sonatas and canzonas by Valentini are the subject of Oddities & Trifles: The very peculiar instrumental music of Giovanni Valentini (Olde Focus Recordings FCR904, rec 2014, 69'), presented by a recently formed North American group, Acronym (the name is itself an acronym of a humorous macaronic phrase 'Altmusik Camerata Resurrecting Old - but New to You - Music'). Tremendous dedication and scholarly nous have gone into collecting, editing and in certain instances completing these off-beat, fascinating and sometimes hair-raising pieces for strings and continuo; the ensemble plays not only with gusto and flair, but also with a discipline that belies the chatty, quirky style of the booklet. Valentini's Sonata a4 in G minor ending the recording is itself a kind of musical macaronic since it is written from start to finish (except for the final phrase) as a series of statements and echoes, with the twist that all the echoes are transposed a major 3rd higher to B minor (Acronym compound the weirdness by performing the sonata antiphonally a8). This composer is, frankly, astonishing - absolutely sui generis - in his bold harmonic and tonal juxtapositions and audacities of part-writing, nearly all of which succeed perfectly. I can't wait to hear more of his music.
Bertali, in contrast, is a composer whose moment has already come, even though his complete catalogue of surviving music is not yet on disc, let alone published in a modern edition. Advanced for his time (he is credited, for example, with being the first theorist to advocate the presence of episodes within fugues), he is less openly experimental than Valentini - even if, by ordinary standards, his dissonance-treatment and modulation cross the boundaries - and his major historical achievement seems to have been to provide a model for the serenely introspective, eloquently melodious style cultivated both in Germany (by Rosenmüller and Buxtehude, among many others) and in Italy (by Colonna and Legrenzi) that characterizes the final decades of the 17th century. Acronym's Paradise: Instrumental sonatas of Antonio Bertali (Olde Focus Recordings FCR901, rec 2013, 63'), an anthology of sonatas for various combinations drawn from manuscripts in Kassel, Kroměříž, Uppsala and Wolfenbüttel, provides technically and interpretatively excellent performances.