Monday , July 22 2024
John Holloway playing the violin
John Holloway

Music Reviews: John Holloway Ensemble – ‘Henry Purcell: Fantazias’; Isabelle Faust: ‘Solo’

Two of my favorite albums of 2023 so far, both of music one could at least partially slot into the “early music” category, are out this fall. The John Holloway Ensemble reveals the passion in Henry Purcell’s “Fantazies,” while Isabelle Faust delivers revelatory performances of music for solo violin by composers many listeners won’t be familiar with but will be very glad to meet.

John Holloway Ensemble – Henry Purcell: Fantazias

No matter which of its many spellings you choose, the “Fantazie” was already an outdated form by the time Henry Purcell composed these 12 three- and four-part examples around 1680. Originally improvisatory, the short, multi-part form had evolved to encompass sophisticated counterpoint and polyphonic writing. But as the violin family gradually replaced the older viols, newer musical vocabularies replaced the old forms too.

We may never know why Purcell turned to the Fantazie during a lull in his responsibilities as court composer to Charles II. But we can be very grateful he did. As violinist and scholar John Holloway writes in the liner notes to the new album from the John Holloway Ensemble: Even at age 21 Purcell knew how to “walk the fine line between joy and sorrow, to beautifully express the melancholy which was such a characteristic mood of his times; and all this within the strictest self-imposed disciplines of complex counterpoint.”

Perhaps Purcell had imbibed a love of this old-fashioned form from his highly musical childhood, and felt it was the right mode for music he wished to create purely for his own pleasure. Perhaps he was posing a technical challenge to himself. Perhaps both. Whatever the genesis of these pieces, they made a statement for all time.

Recorded back in 2015, this session is now available as an ECM New Series release. It’s as exquisite in interpretation as it is pristine in sound. The emotional expressiveness astounds as it leaps from the strings of Holloway’s violin, the violas of Monika Baer and Renate Steinmann, and Martin Zeller’s cello. What a joy to have this music brought to life in such expert, sensitive hands.

Henry Purcell: Fantazias is out now on ECM.

Isabelle Faust – Solo

Isabelle Faust, one of the finest violinists of today’s chamber music scene, treats us to a collection of solo works by mostly pre-Bach composers. I can’t think of a contemporary violinist who plays with such a combination of fluidity, agility, and expressiveness. One need only listen, for example, to her astounding rendition here of the last movement of Johann Georg Pisendel’s Sonata in A minor. Acrobatics are never at the expense of feeling in Faust’s hands.

Purcell wasn’t the only one composing “Fantazias” or “Fantasias” in the late 17th century. A fleet-fingered “Fantasia” by Nicola Matteis the Younger opens Solo with a cornucopia of arpeggios. Faust’s 1658 Jacobus Stainer violin was recorded with the resonance of a large hall, so it’s as if the exquisite period instrument has grown a modest sustain pedal and we almost hear polyphony.

It’s followed by “Ayres for the Violin” by Matteis’s father, Nicola Matteis the Elder, a popular violinist and composer of the time who hailed from Italy but was based in London. With works like these, writes Peter Wollny in the liner notes, Matteis “introduced the British public to the Italian art of virtuoso violin playing, in two books in 1676.” They remind us that Bach’s ubiquitous Partitas did not emerge sui generis from the master’s mind but hailed from a tradition of solo works for the violin meant to evoke deep emotion in the listener even as they demanded impressive technique.

The abovementioned Johann Georg Pisendel was another greatly admired violinist (Albinoni, Vivaldi and Telemann all dedicated compositions to him). He probably wrote his Sonata in A minor about the same time as Bach’s partitas. Through Faust’s joyous channeling it’s easy to mentally slot these works into the same category of mastery – or even to playfully imagine the two composers in a faceoff.

A bit less marvelous than the rest of the album is the music written most recently: the Amusements pour le violon seul Op. 18 by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, published in 1762. Here Faust’s fine playing doesn’t disguise the fact that these tiny pieces are just what they purport to be: amusements, without too much substance. They are, with all that, a pure pleasure to listen to. And they give Faust plenty of opportunity to display her glorious double-stop technique. It’s interesting to note that Guillemain was a student of Jean-Marie Leclair, composer of some of the Baroque era’s weirdest music. There’s nothing whatsoever weird about this crowd-pleasing stuff!

Solo is out October 20, 2023 on Harmonia Mundi and is available for pre-order.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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