Bound to Nothing: The German Stylus Fantasticus

Bound to Nothing: The German Stylus Fantasticus
Resonus. RES10156. 71’15

Buxtehude: Sonata in A Major (Op2/5), Praeludium in g (BuxWV 163);
Erlebach: Sonata II in E Minor, Sonata III in A;
Krieger: Sonata X in A,
JJ Walther: Cappricio in C; Kühnel: Sonata VIII in A.

I think I would be rather nervous of meeting Bach face to face, but Buxtehude seems to have been an altogether more companionable and jovial chap; something very ably demonstrated in the opening Sonata in A on this CD. Buxtehude is one of the key composers in the Stylus phantasticus – as it is usually spelt, unless your group’s name happens to be Fantasticus. With its roots in the music of Frescobaldi and the like in early 17th century Italy, the style was taken up with gusto by many later German composers. Written references to the style are rare, although Kircher in 1650 and Mattheson around 1740 (well after it had declined in popularity) both had a go at describing it – as did Frescobaldi. Mattheson referred to it as “most free and unrestrained … now swift, now hesitating … without theme or subject that are worked out”. The latter is evident in fugal passages that often start off correctly enough, but then fizzle out in a dazzling display of figuration – a common aspect of Buxtehude’s organ works, here represented by the G minor Praeludium, played on the harpsichord.

As well as moments of complete freedom, ground bass sections were often used, in the case of Walther’s Cappricio, where it forms the basis for the whole of the rather long piece. The bass is unusual in that is covers an entire descending C major scale.  The CD finishes with another ground bass piece, the Ciaconne that concludes Erlebach’s Sonata II. Erlebach deserves to be much better known, but most of his music was lost in a fire at the Thuringan Court. Like several other composers of his generation, he combined Italian and French styles, as evidenced by the two Sonatas included her. Sonata III used the scordatura tuning of the violin strings beloved by Biber, in this case with the two lower strings tuned up a tone, producing a brighter tone than usual.

The viola da gamba’s role varies between treble and bass in most pieces, but takes centre stage as a solo instrument in Kühnel’s Sonata VIII in A, the yearning phrase in the opening movement being a particular feature. The three players of Fantasticus are Rie Kimura (violin), Robert Smith (viola da gamba) & Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord), all excelling in the interpretations and technical prowess.

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