In practice, the 17th century was like a golden age for brass music, particularly in the early part of it when no European court was considered complete without some expert brass players on hand. Much instrumental music of that era was published in a flexible way that allowed for interpretation by both brass and stringed instruments, but among modern, period instrument performers the strings have taken preference, mainly because so few players are willing to take up weird instruments like the cornetto, dulcian, or the tiny trombones in use at the time. Groups made up exclusively of such instruments also tend to sound wearing over the long haul, owing to their limited range and bright sound. The Caecilia-Concert, based in the Netherlands, has discovered an ingenious solution to this challenge in combining the period winds with strings and a standard harpsichord continuo. The Challenge Classics disc Schmelzer & Co: Music at the Habsburg Court is never dull; it's quite engrossing, actually, employing a wide range of pieces that would have been used at the courts of all three Habsburg monarchs in the 17th century: Ferdinand II, Ferdinand III, and Leopold I. Caecilia-Concert works hard to keep a sense of variety in the program, even devoting a rather lengthy track to harpsichordist Kathryn Cok as a solo feature, though this is significantly quieter than the rest of the disc. However, there are some clear standouts that emerge from the program, unknown Italian composer Marco Antonio Ferro's slightly thorny Sonata 11 à 4, which comes from his only published volume of 12 sonatas (1649) and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonata à 3 in which Adam Woolf's trombone playing puts its best foot forward. Challenge Classics' Schmelzer & Co: Music at the Habsburg Court makes it clear that the combination of Baroque brass instruments and fiddles -- long regarded as impossible to blend owing to their relative volume levels -- can be compatible in a chamber setting and, in certain literature, possibly preferred, though it probably won't make much of a dent dethroning the dominance of the strings in 17th century literature.
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AllMusic Review by Uncle Dave Lewis