Schmelzer: The Emperor’s Fiddler

Relatively little is known about Austrian composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623–1680), despite being described during his lifetime as ‘the famous and just about foremost violinist of all Europe’. Indeed, his six sonatas for violin and continuo–the sonatæ unarum fidium–are among the earliest examples of this genre. The sonatas consist largely of variations, allowing the violinist displays of virtuosity alongside passages of great restraint. For the Obsidian label, Melbourne-based baroque violinist and scholar David Irving has newly recorded the sonatas on a Jacob Stainer replica violin, an original of which was likely played by Schmelzer himself.

Along with harpist Hannah Lane, gambist Laura Vaughan, theorbist Tommie Anderson and keyboard player John O’Donnell, Irving has set out to recreate Schmelzer’s music as it might have been heard at the time of composition. This is quite the exercise, explained in detail in the sleeve notes, in which Irving describes fascinating particulars of elements of performance practice employed: tuning, stringing, and style of basso continuo. Of course, this may be quite a dry exercise if the music itself were not so beautiful, or so beautifully played. Recorded in the natural acoustic of St Fidelis Parish Church, West Coburg, Irving and his colleagues produce a sound that is both warm and clear, with the spontaneity of a live recording and the precision of a studio one. Irving’s own performance is both intelligent and musical, and he plays the many technically demanding passages with skill, accuracy and–importantly–flair.

Slightly incongruous is the inclusion of Johann Caspar Kerll’s passacaglia in D minor, performed on organ by John O’Donnell. While well played, the slightly gloomy sound of the organ interrupts the meditative atmosphere of Schmelzer’s sonatas. That said, there’s little else to complain about on this impressively researched and divinely performed recording.

Alexandra Mathew is a classical music specialist at Readings Carlton.