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Handel: Complete Violin Sonatas
Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr
Harmonia Mundi

Perhaps the sonata was but a toy theatre in Handel's world of architectural splendors. Nevertheless, the characters which wordlessly inhabit its stage are no less lifelike, no more an illusion, than the many heroes and heroines who people the operas and oratorios."

So writes baroque violin virtuoso Andrew Manze in the liner notes to this recording of the "complete" violin sonatas by G. F. Handel. Whether Handel wrote all of these sonatas remains unclear -- only five out of the disc's eight complete sonatas, plus two stand-alone movements, can be authenticated. Nor can we verify if the composer heard them performed solely by violin and harpsichord, without a cello doubling the bass line as commonly practiced in modern, "historically authentic" performance. What is certain, however, is that the Gramophone Award--winning team of Manze and Egarr has created another potential award winner.

This music is vital, alive and thrilling. These artists understand that baroque composers expected musicians to improvise, fleshing out and ornamenting the written line. The results, a reflection of the highest musical imagination, make for splendid listening. A high point is the first selection, the 12-minute Sonata in D major, Op. 1 No. 13, whose gentle opening movement is filled with beauty.

Manze plays with incredible panache, alternating soulful movements with others filled with joy and brio. The sound of his violin, made in 1782 by Joseph Gagliano, offers an intriguing blend of sweetness tinged with a touch of metal. As paired with Egarr's sonorous instrument, a John Phillips copy of a 1707 harpsichord by Nicolas Dumont, the colors prove irresistible. Not even the addition of too much unnatural reverb can sabotage this triumph.

-- Jason Serinus

Bright Flight
Silver Jews
Drag City

The first song on Bright Flight ("Slow Education") begins, "When God was young/ he made the wind and sun/ since then/ it's been a slow education" and ends with the refrain, "I'm not the same." In the transition, David Berman (Silver Jews' mastermind) displays a rare lyrical gift: His songs personalize grand visions. At their best, his voice and guitar practically mirror the prairie sky.

Silver Jews began in the early '90s. Back then Bob Nastanovich and Steve Malkmus (who later co-founded Pavement) backed Berman. They left after three experimental lo-fi releases and 1996's Actual Air was essentially a solo Berman album. Malkmus returned for guitar duties on 1998's American Water and, more often than not, his spiraling leads cluttered Berman's simple melodies.

On Bright Flight, Malkmus is gone again and, consequently, the accompaniment sounds intimate and pleasantly hollow -- usually just acoustic guitar with the occasional pedal steel, piano, or Hammond organ. Berman's songs now sound like Leonard Cohen emulating Hank Williams or, perhaps, the monotone comic Steven Wright (of Reservoir Dogs fame) covering Harry Nilsson tunes. Bright Flight only fails on the instrumental "Transylvania Blues."

A popular rock-crit idiom, coined by Greil Marcus, is "weird, old America." I suppose Marcus wanted to avoid "Americana" -- weird old America's over-abused and connotatively haphazard predecessor -- but even Marcus' alternative has become a nearly meaningless expression. Thus, this rock-crit lacks one swift, meaningful phrase that situates Bright Flight's "duplexes" and "runaway trucks" in all their mythic loneliness.

-- Peter Jacoby

Telemann: Chamber Cantatas & Trio Sonatas
Musica Pacifica
Dorian

Here's a delightful disc of baroque music from some of North America's finest Early Music specialists. Musica Pacifica is composed of Elizabeth Blumenstock, quite possibly the most "in demand" baroque violinist in the country; Judith Linsenberg on recorder, David Morris on cello, Michael Eagan on Archlute and Byron Schenkman on harpsichord and organ.

The icing on the cake is delivered by soprano Christine Brandes and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane. Their voices are wonderful and free, their technique so accomplished that the most florid of passages are sung with ease.

The two sonatas and five cantatas on this well-recorded 77-minute disc derive from the first 15 years that Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) worked for the city of Hamburg. During this period, he had to produce at least 140 cantatas a year for five churches, plus numerous other compositions. Many were assembled into volumes that Telemann published and distributed on a subscription basis.

This is the kind of baroque music on which the Musical Heritage Society built its catalog. A far cry from Telemann's more elaborate and complex pieces, the works are simple in form, alternating joyful movements with those of a more serious nature. It's not music as profound as Bach's; it's doubtful that it will change your life. But if you are in the mood for a treat, or for background music to an intimate dinner by candlelight, this will surely fit the bill.

-- Jason Serinus

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