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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.