'These works are meant to sound as impulsive as improvisations, while also allowing their performers free rein in expression, ornamentation, and counterpoint—an opportunity that Stoffer and McCartney seize with fervor.
They revel in the violin’s power to simulate the human voice, a power that Stoffer raises to ecstatic heights. In slow movements, she leans lightly on long-held notes to make them moan and sigh or ululate with vibrato; on low, grainy notes, her violin growls; and she dashes and skitters through compressed flurries of virtuosic figures. Meanwhile, McCartney virtually shreds his accompaniments with fervent plucking and percussive strumming.
The album’s highlights include the wide-ranging forms, embracing both church and chamber music, of G. A. Pandolfi Mealli’s sonata “La Cesta,” from 1660, on which Stoffer and McCartney span extremes of ethereal calm and profane excitement.'
- The New Yorker, Richard Brody
'This impressive recording by Ensemble Libro Primo (Sabine Stoffer & Alex McCartney) features 17th-century music for violin and theorbo written in the Stylus Phantasticus[.] ... [The] sense of improvisatory performance infuses these performances with drama and excitement. One example is the solo violin Passagio Rotto by N. Matteis. Matteis was praised by Roger North for his “eloquent, expressive style“: words that accurately describe Sabine Stoffer’s own delightful playing.
Also included are two groups of theorbo pieces by Kapsberger, played with exquisite delicacy by Alex McCartney. Notable amongst these harmonically innovative pieces are the Gagliarda from the 1620 Terzo quarto d’intavolatura di chitarrone, and the impressive Passacaglia from Kapsberger’s 1640 Libro quarto.
Although it was recorded in Glasgow Cathedral, the acoustic sounds intimate and suits the music well.'
- Early Music Reviews +, Andrew Benson-Wilson
'[T]his ancient music comes alive in fresh performances.'
- Lark Reviews
'Stoffer and McCartney combine touching simplicity with full-on virtuosity, McCartney strumming syncopated rhythms like a guitarist at the works core climax.
Stoffer shows herself to be an accomplished performer and interpreter, relishing the virtuosic demands, and McCartney moves seamlessly between an accompanying role and more foreground duetting as the music requires. An impressive debut disc for the ensemble, with surely more to follow.'
- Classical Notes
The term Stylus Phantasticus first arises in Musurgia universalis (1650); Athanasius Kirchner’s work about harmony in music. It is a style of both composing and performing instrumental music which derives from phantasiren or ‘the art of improvising’. Stylus Phantasticus represents a form of liberty in the composition of instrumental music. The style does not confine the composer’s imagination or force it to abide by strict rules. This way of writing instrumental music can be difficult to define using common structures and forms of the early 17th Century. In this case, the composer’s will to write down and structure their ideas was a natural conveyance of a highly elaborate improvisatory performance practice. Johann Mattheson writes about this contemporary performing style: ‘The Stylus Phantasticus is (…) sometimes agitated, sometimes hesitant, sometimes one- and sometimes many-voiced; often also shortly after the beat: without rhythm; but not without the intention to please, to rush nor to amaze.‘
For our CD, we have selected works representative of this genre not only for their obvious virtuosity, but also for their subtlety. The liberty within the style leads us through fantastically quick passages and also to moments of hesitation and silence. The juxtaposition of intense and frantic passages with the hesitant and tardy holds a particularly human charm.
Often interspersed amongst the quasi-improvisational passages of music, in both Viviani and Pandolfi Mealli, are ‘ground-basses’ providing occasional respite in the form of a repeating and reliable ostinato bass-line.
Nicola Matteis exhibited the eccentricity of the Stylus Phantasticus in his personality as well as his compositions. He was praised for his eloquent, expressive style by his contemporary Roger North. We can imagine his way of playing by studying his Passaggio Rotto.
Marini subtitles his Sonata Quarta ‘Per sonar con due Corde’ which suggests that using double stops on the violin was extraordinary for that time in Italy. We see the same effect as commonplace in Biber’s violin works; as he often writes multi-voiced chords and in scordatura (alternate tuning systems).
Biber’s Darstellung im Tempel (The Presentation) is the fourth sonata in the cycle of the famous 15 mystery sonatas describing the lives of Jesus and Maria. This sonata is a set of variations composed over a ground bass.The fourth sonata belongs to the Joyful Mysteries and the eight bar ostinato bass as the musical foundation builds a heartfelt theme. The Rosenkranzsonaten are a monument in the 17th Century works written for violin, not only for the fact that each sonata is written for a differently tuned violin but for the heavy narrative imbued in each of these sonatas.
We have tried to symbolise the equality and intimacy offered in this fantastic music by recording and producing it ourselves in the atmospheric surroundings of Glasgow Cathedral.