Stylus Phantasticus

Tekla Cunningham / Stephen Stubbs / Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra

(CD - Reference Recordings #FR 742)

Review by James Manheim

The term stylus phantasticus, or fantastic style, was originated, like so much else, by the polymath Athanasius Kircher, who described it as "the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject." The style originated in Italy when composers of works for non-keyboard instruments began to emulate the improvisatory style of organ toccatas and the like. It was brought over the Alps to German lands by Johann Jakob Froberger. He is not represented on this collection by Baroque violinist Tekla Cunningham and Pacific MusicWorks, for nothing by him for this combination of instruments has survived. However, there are several works by composers from the German-language sphere where the style reached its greatest development: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and best of all, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. In collections of this sort, where there is one "name" composer amid a host of unknowns, listeners may wonder about the degree to which that composer stands out. In this case, there's no question that Biber greatly expanded the dimensions of the style, as evident in the spectacularly imaginative Sonata prima heard here. However, the rest of the program is of considerable interest, for it reveals the way the style developed over the century before Biber came along. The composers range from fairly obscure (Giovanni de Macque) to all-but-unknown, even for people who have studied the early Baroque. Cunningham is a lively and virtuosic player who captures the daring mood and the spirit of experimentation in this radical group of works, and, as concertmaster of Pacific MusicWorks, she is able to surround herself with a continuo group quite attuned to what she is doing. This release marks something of a triumph for early music in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; the U.S. West Coast scene has hitherto been centered on the San Francisco Bay Area. This release will fill holes in many collections and is absorbing in its own right.

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