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Twelve Days of Christmas: Monica Huggett Takes Flight

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Flights of Fantasy: Early Italian Chamber Music, Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists, M. Huggett

(released on September 14, 2010)
Avie AV2202 | 78'56"
This recent CD by members of the Irish Baroque Orchestra was in my player around the same time that Alex Ross picked it as a CD of the Week in November (he later singled it out as one of his Best of 2010). The disc has most of the qualities that would make me want to recommend it: a program of less often programmed Italian composers of the 17th century, and a lean and (mostly rarefied) sound from the chamber-sized ensemble (basically one on a part, other than the lavishly appointed continuo of harpsichord, organ, harp, theorbo, and lirone in various combinations). The playing is virtuosic, playful, mercurial, indeed as extravagant as the title Flights of Fancy, evoking one of the most important qualities of the Baroque period, the love of over-decoration and excess. The group's director, Monica Huggett (who is also artistic director of Juilliard's Historical Performance Program), leads the way on the first violin parts, with considerable freedom of rhythm and tempo and ornamentation a-plenty.

All of this makes for enjoyable listening -- while the disc played in my office at work, more than one colleague (and students, too) stopped by to ask what it was. In a few cases, however, the adventurous attitude of the performers strays too far toward the extravagant for my taste. This was most bothersome in the interpretation of Carlo Farina's Capriccio Stravagante, where pitch and tone are so badly distorted that it crosses the line into ugliness. A set of short, spirited sections of highly varied music, the piece has many fun moments like the col legno strikes and the pulsating Spanish guitar imitation, but the drones of the Lira, the wails of the cat (not even close to the written pitches, which is funny but kind of misses the point), and exaggerated dissonances in the tremulo movement seem too far over the top. (One can examine the Cantus line of the Capriccio Stravagante in this .PDF file, beginning on fol. 10r, to see what Huggett changes.)

These strange, effect-oriented dissonances are linked by the (somewhat rambling) program notes to the selection by H. I. F. Biber, the sixth part of the Harmonia artificiosa. Of all of the sections of this extensive and rather odd score (edited by Paul Nettl and Friedrich Reidinger for Guido Adler's Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich), it may be the least interesting. Most of the oddness in the notation is a sleight of hand, created by scordatura tunings, so that the score looks much more dissonant than it really is (thus the title): the sixth part is the only one that uses the standard violin tuning. (Someone should make a recording playing the solo parts as they are notated, on unmodified strings, bizarre key signatures and all.) There is lots of noodling from the two violinists, albeit very impressively virtuosic, over the plainest of harmonic movements (I to V and back again, over and over, with eventually a few secondary dominants thrown in for some chromatic interest) for 16 minutes. The varied colors of the continuo playing help avoid a sense of total monotony. Almost.

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