In the 17th century shortly before the unfettered Baroque genius of J.S. Bach began to unfold, the violin consolidated its position as expressively the most wide-ranging of non-keyboard instruments. In the age of the great violin makers – Amati and Stradivari – and performers such as Corelli, Italy was the centre of instrumental prowess and the art of improvising, referred to in the treatise Musurgia universalis by the highly respected pedagogue of the day, Athanasius Kircher.
And among the finest composers and virtuosos of the day was Heinrich Biber, with whose lesser-known Sonata IV the eloquent duo of violinist Sabine Stoffer and theorboist Alex McCartney close their remarkable Fantasia Incantata. Released both on CD and vinyl – an infinitely more rewarding experience for the audiophile – this album of Renaissance sinfonies, sonatas, aires, and other period songs and dances is a riveting account of music of the day, where improvisation was key to the prevailing sense of musical adventure and joie de vivre tempered by the amazing sonorities of violin and theorbo.
Biber’s Sonata IV is preceded by performances of music by violinists Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani, Nicola Matteis, Biagio Marini, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli and theorboist Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger. All the works were written as vehicles for those instrumentalists’ own prodigious virtuosity. As treated here by Stoffer and McCartney, they are stunning, highly inventive and the finest examples today of technically demanding works played with ease. Both play as though they have this music in their veins, so assured and full of flair are these performances.