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.