Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was born some time between 1620 and 1623 in a tiny village, Scheibbs, in Lower Austria. Little is known of his early life, except that he seems to have been in Vienna by his teens, remaining violinist, composer and musician at the Habsburg court there until he was appointed Kapellmeister in 1679 only to die a few months later, in March 1680. It would be churlish to attribute this accolade merely to Schmelzer's ability to flatter his employers with music for royal occasions (although he was clearly adept at such commissions). For Schmelzer's music is melodic, expressive ("soulful", almost, at times), wraps delicacy in teasingly enigmatic openness and reveals plain, thrusting development of tempo and direction in subtly-scored passages, the beautifully "sprung" rhythms of the second half of the delightful Sonata VIII [tr.4], for instance. Schmelzer's music also has all the freshness of the early Baroque with a rich array of strings, percussion and winning, intriguing textures – without ever a hint of eccentricity.
Happy adherence to such variety and the consistently convincing delivery of a composer whose work deserves to be much better known than is now the case is typical of the slightly understated yet precise, sensitive, thoughtful and extremely persuasive playing of Armonico Tributo Austria conducted by Lorenz Duftschmid on this generous CD from Arcana. They bring a level-headed musical style appropriate to a sense of grandeur, dolor, sensitivity, celebration, joviality, pain and abandon – all as needed – to the pieces presented in this re-issue (originally dating from recordings made in 1995) of three state occasions (the wedding of the Emperor and Margarita Teresa), a funeral ode for Ferdinand III and a ballet suite to accompany carnival pieces together with religious and chamber music. At the same time the two-dozen strong Armonico Tributo Austria, which was founded over 20 years ago, gently and unselfconsciously offers us the particular strengths and characteristic styles of the sadly underperformed Schmelzer, whose music has aspects in common with (near) contemporaries from Monteverdi (ostinati for emphasis at entries) via Lully (tambourine dotted rhythms in such dance movements as the Balletto di Matti [tr.12]) to Biber (highly virtuosic and memorable violin playing).
Implicitly, this approach by Duftschmid and his forces exposes the multi-faceted strengths of Schmelzer: his flexibility; his large, highly-developed repertoire of profound and beautiful music for many musical, as well as court, occasions; his delight in transferring (and thus enshrining) the advanced and stimulating instrumental techniques (especially strings) of which he was capable into enduring compositions; above all, perhaps, the sense which a listener new to the composer has that every next movement is going to be different, original, full of substance and blooming with sheer loveliness.
The CD is nominally centered around Schmelzer's attachment to, and the inspiration he drew from, Margarita Teresa and her court with Leopold I. Although we can only begin to imagine the 1,700 individuals and 600 horses choreographed by Schmelzer's balletto a cavallo, and may not find it more than a curiosity, we must be glad that – along with the several other state occasions to which the composer added his exceptional gifts – they were the cause for composition. On the other hand when Schmelzer's first employer and patron, Ferdinand III, died in 1657, it's thought that the composer spontaneously dedicated his famous Lament [tr.9] to the emperor without a (formal) commission. It's this spirit of spontaneity, genuineness and generosity that Armonico Tributo Austria and Duftschmid have so successfully captured on this CD. The music's overall tone is upbeat. But it's sufficiently positive for the contrasting mournful works not to be truly touching and moving. The technical attack and pacing of the players (and Mieke van der Sluis' soprano in In jenem Gefilde [tr.5]) is exemplary – soave without being slick, gentle without lacking impact, polished yet honest. They truly bring Schmelzer alive in a thoroughly satisfying way.
The acoustic is intimate; it lacks over-reverberance, yet is clean and transparent enough to aid our appreciation of the essence of this lovely music. The booklet that comes with the 69-minute CD is informative, well-illustrated and adds to the overall feel that this is a CD to prize. Warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.