Monica Huggett / Irish Baroque Orchestra

Flights of Fantasy: Early Italian Chamber Music

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Here's a CD that lives up to its name and more. The Italian chamber repertory of the 17th century receives occasional performances, but it has rarely been as convincingly explored as it is here by veteran Baroque violinist Monica Huggett, leading small ensembles drawn from the Irish Baroque Orchestra. Huggett's biggest coup is simply her selection of unknown but superb repertoire. The Partia VI from the collection of trio sonatas titled Harmonia Artificiosa by Heinrich Biber (the "Italian" label for the music includes examples of Italian style from German lands) is sometimes played, although not as often as the composer's solo violin music; it is a rigorous but colorful exercise in scordatura (the use of unorthodox tunings). The Capriccio stravagante of Carlo Farina, composed at the Dresden court in 1627 just as Heinrich Schütz was bringing out some of his soberest sacred works, is the main attraction. For violin, two violas, and continuo, the piece falls into 21 sections over its nearly 16-minute length, and it would spoil the fun to say much more than that even Biber's more extreme representational pieces never went this far and that the Baroque ideal of the bizarre may never have been so fully realized. Huggett captures the strangeness of the music without mugging her way through it, and her leadership of the Irish players through the music's many harmonic twists is assured and bespeaks comfort with a repertory that's a bit out-of-the-way even for Baroque specialists. The shorter works -- sonatas, a murky "Passacaglio" by Biagio Marini, and an eventful keyboard canzona by Frescobaldi -- have joys of their own. Only rather chilly church sound mars an exciting and innovative disc, featuring fascinating music that younger players seem to have bypassed simply because of the technical and interpretive challenges involved. The artist-controlled business model pursued by the British-American label Avie really shines in outings like this one. Highly recommended.

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