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Maurice Steger: "Venezia 1625"

img  Tobias

Wouldn't you sometimes want to take the trip back to the Baroque splendour of 17th-century-Italy? For Maurice Steger, time travel has turned into one of the most natural things imaginable. When he speaks about a shift of the human perceptional apparatus from a rational system leaning on a fragile balance between man, nature and science towards a hormone-fueled entanglement of „all his varied emotions, his contradictions and spontaneity“, one is constantly under the impression as though he had lived to tell the tale. With „Venezia 1625“ confidently replacing melodies originally written with a Violin in mind with slender Recorder lines, it almost feels as though Steger were keen on demonstrating to the old masters how airy and exhilarating their scores could have been had they conceived them for his instrument in the first place.

As a time-traveling impresario, however, the Swiss virtuoso is equally intent on demonstrating to citizens of the new millennium how much they'd miss by reducing their literacy of the Baroque repertoire to Telemann, Vivaldi and Bach: The composers at the heart of this disc have either remained insider tips or complete unknowns even to some of the most fervent fans of the genre. And yet, at the time, they may all have  been visiting the same cafes in the old city centre of Venice, shopping for elegant clothes in its luxurious shops and possibly even chatting among each other about the intricacies of court life and new pieces they were working on. With the exception of Dario Castello, they were all outsiders who had come to town looking for inspiration, engagements and the publication of their music in a metropolis who treasured its artists like precious stones. Not all of them actually lived here for very long: Salomone Rossi spent most of his life at the court of Mantua and Tarquinio Merula even traveled larger parts of Europe in an existence which Denis Morrier aptly characterises as tumultuous“.

From the illustrious cast featured on this record, Giovanni Battista Fontana is singled out and represented with four long-form pieces. It is a bold choice, certainly if, like Steger, your aim is not only to present artistically satisfying results but to also reach a wide audience and open up new doors to a style often confined to a dedicated but ultimately tiny minority. Of his life, after all, little is known and if Steger refers to him as „enigmatic“, that is neither coquetry nor marketing slant. Selling CDs on the back of his name should seem wishful thinking, especially as there is no extensive catalogue to promote here: Of his oeuvre, only 18 sonatas have survived, marked by a grandiose architecture, life-affirming freshness and unassuming air. The upwardly-bound anthemic first bars of the second Sonata, mirrored by the downwards-spiralling melancholia of the sixth, lead straight into a world which uses counterpoint as a means of musical structuring but also to juxtapose strikingly diverse representations for all sensibilities of the heart.

Even though Fontana is outwardly the key figure of „Venezia 1625“, Steger's passion for Marco Uccellini, maestro di cappella at Modena and Parma among other prestigious assignments, appears even more palpable upon closer inspection. Even his concise symphonias, often barely scraping the two-minute mark, take on a meaning well beyond their programmatic purpose as interludes and instrumental intermezzi. Regal and rapturous, they draw from many influences, combining sacral moods with joyful episodes of dance metrics. „Charming“ is what Steger rightly calls Uccellini's „Aria sopra la Bergamasca“, where he battles it out with abrina Frey and Stefan Temmingh on Recorder. Most of all, however, the piece, with its circling cycles of vivid variations, is a pointed anti-pole to the well-measured and stately grace of some of his colleague's contributions.

Steger has taken complete artistic control of the album and conceptualised his third full-length for Harmonia Mundi not only as an entertaining trip back in time, but as a both varied and coherent program whose combination of quicksilver solo parts and strategically placed stretches for the members of his ensemble make it an enticing proposition for the new millennium as well. With stars like Hille Perl and Lee Santana (2/3 of old music formation Los Otros) in prominent positions, he has certainly made a case of surrounding himself with a selection of stimulating equals rather than a bleak backdrop of faceless artists.

Still, his approach is controlled rather than careless: It takes several spins to succumb to the charms of „Venezia 1625“ and in terms of production, it feels more chambermusical and less urgent than some more edgy comparable releases. The benefit, however, is an immersive and coherent sound: Embedded into an organic blend of constantly shifting instrumental constellations comprised of Organ, Chitarrone, Theorbo, Harp and Baroque Guitar among others, the transcribed Recorder parts feel perfectly organic . As such, the album represents an enticing chance to roam the streets of 17th-century-Italy and spend some quality time in the company of some of the slightly-less known musical masters of the time.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Maurice Steger
Homepage: Harmonia Mundi Records

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