Stylus phantasticus: New recordings of baroque music for violin

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw virtuoso music for solo violin burgeon, its proliferation driven by outstanding violinists extending the technical and expressive capacities of the violin. Consequently, the status and prestige of the violin increased as it became associated with the highest realms of eloquent musical art. While the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by J.S. Bach are arguably the pinnacle of this repertoire, many other composers (especially violinists from Germany and Italy) provided the foundations for Bach’s solo works.

Three new recordings added to our collection by violinists Rachel Podger, Isabelle Faust, and Alina Ibragimova, illustrate the extraordinary riches of the era, including examples of the stylus phantasticus, a style of composition especially characteristic of the early-to-mid baroque era. Athanasius Kircher, a polymathic Jesuit priest and author of Musurgia Universalis (1650), wrote of the stylus phantasticus that:

The fantastic style is especially suited to instruments. It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject, it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues. – Athanasius Kircher

In the following recordings, these attributes emerge especially in the music of Gasparini, Tartini, and Vilsmayr, while every work displays the genius of the composer and the performers alike. Read on for a more in-depth review into these recordings below!

Tutta sola / Rachel Podger
Following her landmark 2019 recording of J. S. Bach’s Suites for solo cello (BWV1007-1012), the first recording of these works transcribed for violin, Rachel Podger’s most recent recording explores fascinating seventeenth- and eighteenth-century solo violin repertoire, including some tantalising surprises from manuscript collections. She opens the CD with a transcription of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which is remarkable enough, before taking her listeners on a journey through more obscure territory. Diverting short pieces by Gasparini, Vitali, Lonati, Purcell, and Corelli, from the collection Select Preludes or Voluntaries for the Violin by the Most Eminent Masters in Europe (London: 1705) are interspersed between more substantial works: Podger plays a Partita from the Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera by Johann Joseph Vilsmayr, an Austrian violinist who was likely a pupil of Biber, composer of the Rosary Sonatas. In this partita, the dance movements are separated by a series of graceful arias. Concluding the recording is the ‘Piccole Sonata’ by  Giuseppe Tartini, imbued with hints of folk music from Tartini’s birthplace in Pirano. Throughout every piece, Rachel Podger’s playing moves effortlessly between delicacy and high drama.

Isabelle Faust plays Bach / Bach, Johann Sebastian
Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta wrote of his subject’s solo violin music that: ‘The overpowering wealth of forms pouring from a few and scarcely noticeable sources displays not only the most perfect knowledge of the technique of the violin, but also absolute mastery of an imagination the like of which no other composer was ever endowed.’ Violinist Isabelle Faust demonstrates the veracity of Spitta’s words in a new collected edition from Harmonia Mundi that brings together a range of her solo and ensemble performances. In eight CDs and one DVD, Faust presents not only Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, the sonatas for violin and harpsichord with Kristian Bezuidenhout, and the concerti in A minor and E major, but also a wealth of Bach’s orchestral and chamber music in which the violin takes a leading role. The inclusion of the sinfonias from Bach’s cantatas Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis BWV21, Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute BWV174, and Himmelskonig, sei wilkommen BWV182 highlight the beauty of the autonomous instrumental music in the cantatas, as well as the quality of the ensemble between Faust and her colleagues, but removed from the context of their cantatas these overtures seem oddly isolated. However, the ensemble presentation of the Trio Sonatas in C major (BWV529) and D minor (BWV527) more than compensates, the musicians bringing vividly to life the intricacies of Bach’s counterpoint.

Fantasias for solo violin / Telemann, Georg Philipp
Telemann’s solo Fantasias represent a unique contribution to the violin repertory, but have been overshadowed by Bach’s sonatas and partitas. Telemann published the collection in 1735, and alongside his twelve Fantasias for solo flute and twelve Fantasias for solo viola da gamba, these works demonstrate Telemann’s understanding of each instrument’s capacities. The violin Fantasias explore a range of keys and affects with pure unadorned melody and complex contrapuntal writing. Alina Ibragimova, one of the most versatile violinists of the day – equally at home on a modern or period instrument, as a concerto soloist or chamber musician – plays beautifully and eloquently throughout this recording.  She transcends every technical and musical complexity with ease, creating a uniquely persuasive character for every Fantasia.


The Music and Poetry of Jenny McLeod

On 28 November 2022, Aotearoa lost one of its most ingenious and original composers, Jenny McLeod. While it is impossible to do justice to the scope of her creative achievements in this post, tributes by Elizabeth Kerr, Keith McEwing, and SOUNZ  offer fuller portraits of McLeod’s life and work. You can also hear  McLeod speaking about her work in her poetic 2016 Lilburn Lecture, and in an interview on the occasion of her eightieth birthday.

McLeod’s command of the craft of composing became evident in one of her early orchestral works, the Little Symphony of 1963. Written partly in response to hearing Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, McLeod’s piece demonstrates her awareness of twentieth-styles, hinting at Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bartok, and others. However, the piece is entirely original in its construction and expression. The Little Symphony also exemplifies McLeod’s command of counterpoint and deft hand at orchestration, all of which belie the fact that she was just in the third year of a Bachelor of Music degree when she composed the piece.

From that point on, McLeod’s music encompassed a great array of genres, some requiring gigantic forces with significant community involvement: her Earth and Sky (1968) is a multimedia work involving multiple choirs, a large orchestra, dancers, children, and recorded narration. Similarly, Under the Sun (1970), composed to mark the centenary of Palmerston North included required four orchestras, adults’ and children’s choirs, a five-person rock combo, projected paintings by children from local schools, and the dance participation of the audience.  In complete contrast to these massive, cross-genre works are McLeod’s chamber and solo pieces, including the song cycles Under Southern Skies for mezzo-soprano and piano, and Peaks of Cloud for tenor and piano, and of course, the twenty-four Tone Clock Pieces for solo piano.

Wellington City Library’s classical music collections hold a variety of McLeod’s compositions, as well as her poetry. In this post, we offer a selection of this material, encompassing a variety of repertoire that demonstrates the inimitable craft, innovation, and beauty of her music. Portrait with piano / McLeod, Jennifer Helen
A collection of fine music for solo piano and ensembles by Jenny McLeod, this 2021 release from Atoll Records includes performances by several outstanding New Zealand musicians, including pianists Rae de Lisle, Sarah Watkins, and Stephen De Pledge, percussionist Eric Renick, and violinist Andrew Beer. The repertoire spans five decades of McLeod’s creative life, from the exceptional Piano Piece, composed in 1965 while she was studying with Olivier Messiaen in Paris, to the Seascapes for Trio, arrangements of Tone Clock piece VIII and Tone Clock piece XI dating from 2015. The quality of the music and the performances is exceptional throughout, making for a bold and nuanced Portrait with Piano

The emperor and the nightingale / McLeod, Jennifer Helen
The Emperor and the Nightingale is a work for orchestra and narrator, bringing to life Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name. The work was commissioned by the Wellington Regional Orchestra (now Orchestra Wellington) for performance at the 1986 International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. In this recording by the NZSO, Helen Medlyn provides a memorable narration of the tale. Pianist Eugene Abulescu performs the Rock Concerto, an arrangement of McLeod’s 1985 Rock Sonata. In the composer’s own words, the Concerto is ‘strongly impelled by the spirit of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Debussy, Gershwin …’ who are the ‘distant friends’ alluded to in the first movement of the piece. The central movement of the Concerto, ‘Elegy for Charlie French’ is both tender and austere, before the ‘Latino romp’ of the finale.  This recording is a landmark for New Zealand music and merits a larger audience.

Image reproduced by permission of Rattle Records. tone clocks / McLeod, Jennifer Helen
Dierdre Irons and Michael Houstoun perform all twenty-four of the Tone Clock Pieces in this monument to three decades of McLeod’s work and her fascination with Peter Schat’s theory of chromatic harmony that she discovered in the late 1980s. The performances by Irons and Houstoun are nuanced and pellucid, demonstrating both musicians’ longstanding connections with these pieces. As such, this 2016 release from Rattle Records is also an invaluable testament to the artistry of two of New Zealand’s outstanding pianists.

Mutterings from a spiry crag / McLeod, Jennifer Helen
A poet of words as well as of tones, McLeod’s first collected work of poetry, explores the local landscape around her home in Pukerua Bay and comments on international crises. As with McLeod’s music, the  Mutterings from a Spiry Crag the themes are eclectic, witty, expressive, and cerebral. This book is part of the New Zealand reference collection and is not available for loan, but you can access it by contacting Heritage Queries.


Talking music : conversations with New Zealand musicians / Shieff, Sarah
In this book, Sarah Shieff has interviewed more than a dozen leading figures in New Zealand classical music to assemble a series of fascinating biographical essays, including a profile of Jenny McLeod.  The reflections of McLeod and her peers on their training and careers offer fascinating personal perspectives on performing and composing. We also read candid accounts of how these artists’ dedication to music has shaped their personal and professional lives in different ways. Shieff’s Talking Music is an engaging, thought-provoking historical record of significant lives in New Zealand music. This book is part of the New Zealand reference collection and is not available for loan, but you can access it by contacting Heritage Queries.

Image from source B0000E2RL3/ref=ase_wellingtoncit-21 and replace B000XXXXXXX with the ISBN10 or ASIN number from the item information on Amazon.New Zealand women composers  
Composer and conductor Odaline de la Martinez directs the British ensemble Lontano in performances of music by four New Zealand women, Dorothy Ker, Gillian Whitehead, Annea Lockwood, and Jenny McLeod. McLeod’s For Seven (1966) dates from her time in Cologne studying with Stockhausen, and the composer described it to Elizabeth Ker as her “high European effort” devised mathematically and structured around patterns of accelerandi and ritardandi. Scored for flute, clarinet, vibraphone/marimba, piano, violin, viola, and cello, Four Seven received its premiere in 1966, before further performances in Darmstadt and Berlin. There was no New Zealand premiere until 1992, but the piece has subsequently been performed and recorded by Stroma. This album demonstrates not only the quality of McLeod’s composition but also the rich talent of New Zealand’s composing women.



Miniatures and fragments for piano, voice and violin

In the aesthetics of Romanticism, the notion of the ‘fragment’  – a piece of art, poetry, or music left ‘unfinished’ (whether deliberately or not) – was studied and cultivated by philosophers and aphorists. Shards pottery of ancient civilisations, unearthed by budding archaeologists, lightning-damaged oak trees, ruins, or poetry left incomplete by the death (or boredom) of its creator were all grist to the interpretative mill of the aesthetically-minded.  Critic and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) declared that ‘a fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world, and be complete in itself, like a hedgehog.’ The fragment should be considered in relation to other fragments, requiring a sense of wit and irony to be understood.

Some musicians, notably Robert Schumann, actively engaged with the creation of ‘fragments’ and short incidental piano works (preludes, nocturnes, impromptus, intermezzi, caprices, variations) exemplify these forms. Four recent additions to our classical CD collection, performed by a variety of eminent artists, include music that epitomizes the Romantic fragment: short pieces that may, or may not, be part of larger works, but which also exist autonomously, short poems in musical form.

Recorded in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal, a hall with which Daniel Barenboim has an especially close connection, this CD of short pieces by Schubert, Albeniz, Liszt, Schumann, Chopin, and Albéniz is also highly personal. Each work offers an exquisite portrait in miniature of Barenboim’s artistry, and a reflection upon his extraordinary career. The four extracts from Schumann’s Op. 12 Fantasiestücke are exceptionally fine, exemplifying Barenboim’s inimitable understanding of this enigmatic composer.

Romantic piano masters
The title of Georgian pianist Mariam Batashvili’s new album suggests a cornucopia of popular classics, or even old chestnuts, but instead offers some surprises. Batashvili presents Franck’s Op. 18 Prélude, Fugue et Variation – a piece conceived for organ, and dedicated to Saint-Saëns – which she executes with grandeur and panache, emphasising the composer’s homage to J.S. Bach. Then she moves into theatrical territory, exploring the Romantic tradition of transcription, the practice of re-imagining for the piano – often in the most virtuosic manner – other composers’ music. Liszt’s transcriptions of songs by Schubert, and his fantastical interpretation of the waltz from Gounoud’s Faust, sit alongside the extraordinary Grande Caprice on motifs from Bellini’s La Sonnambula by Sigismond Thalberg. This juxtaposition of composer-pianists is a witty one, given their famous rivalry as both men strove to be the most famous pianists in Europe.

From afar
Ólafsson’s From afar presents the listener with ‘a window into his musical life story‘ that also hints strongly at the legacy of the Romantic fragment: alongside an Intermezzo by Brahms and extracts from Schumann’s Waldszenen and Kinderszenen, Ólafsson includes his own arrangements of music by Mozart and Bach. In stark contrast is the presence of Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District, and a selection of short pieces by another Hungarian, György Kurtág. While not of the ‘Romantic’ era,, these pieces are also fragmentary but, like Schlegel’s hedgehog, complete in themselves. Ólafsson includes performances of these pieces on both a concert grand piano and on an upright, suggesting the piano upon which Ólafsson practised as a child. This evocation of memory and perhaps even yearning for the past is diverting, is a beguiling but sometimes rather contrived concept. The quality of Ólafsson’s musicianship is, however, superb.

Kafka-fragmente / Kurtág, György . The song cycle is a genre most readily associated with the nineteenth century, but Kurtág’s song cycle Kafka-fragmente (Kafka Fragments) is an extraordinary approach to the form dating from the mid-1980s. Kurtág built the cycle for soprano and violin around forty tiny fragments of text from Franz Kafka’s personal writing, letters, diaries, filled with paradoxes and cryptic vignettes.  Often the text for a song is just one short, unfinished sentence, or (in the case of the nineteenth song in the cycle)  just two words, ‘Nichts dergleichen’ (‘nothing of the kind’). Every listener can form their own interpretation of each fragment. The virtuosity of soprano Anna Prohaska and violinist Isabelle Faust is unsurpassed here. Two entirely equal partners, they surmount every one of Kurtág’s  challenges with acerbic wit and sincere expression.