Swiss recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger is one of the most exciting specialists on his instrument to come along since the late and lamented David Munrow, and he was already becoming an established touring artist in Europe while still a student. Having previously delivered two fine discs of Telemann and Giuseppe Sammartini chamber works, Harmonia Mundi's Venezia 1625 finds Steger as leader and coordinator of a large group of instrumentalists, though not all play at the same time; larger configurations of the ensemble dominate the first half of the program. What ties it all together is the concept, which centers on the early Baroque chamber sonata (or sinfonia) as practiced in Venice around 1625, a time and place that nearly signify the declaration of independence for Western instrumental music. Publications of that era tend to be so vague in terms of instrumentation that nearly any combination is conceivable to realize a given piece, and Steger takes full advantage of this in making his ensemble choices and taking them apart again, not to mention the observing convention that anything written for violin then could also pass for the recorder. The backdrop supporting Steger is different literally from track to track, and this helps provide variety, though the latter half of the disc is geared more toward pieces of modest of dimensions.
Steger certainly knows how to pick players; some of these folks are the crême de la crême of the early music movement in Europe; the quality of their playing and inherent ensemble blend would have caused Venetian jaws in 1625 to drop. Hille Perl, whose gamba can be heard on most of the tracks, makes a big difference in the Tarquinio Merula Ciaccona, rolling continuo lines around on her viol in passagework worthy of what's in the solo parts. When Christian Beuse's dulcian comes in on Fontana's Sonata IV, you take notice, for it's a new instrument and picks up ones ears in the wake of the lively Merula Ciaccona. The first half of the disc is great; its balance of pacing and material makes for a terrific spring-summery mix that keeps on moving forward. After about midpoint, however, Venezia 1625 begins to drag, owing to a concentration of slow pieces and small forces; it's rather like the wind got knocked out of it.
Nevertheless, Steger is a dazzling player, in every way able to match the violin as to flexibility and speed, and for passages requiring double stops he has a couple of additional recorder players to pitch in a little assistance. Venezia 1625 will be a wonderful disc for the car, and for the kids, who respond well to the sweet piping sound of the recorder; if you are looking to take a summer outing and want something other than the Beach Boys to listen to, then at least the first half of Harmonia Mundi's Venezia 1625 will be perfect for that; perhaps the second half is for the drive home.