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Fanfare Magazine: 44:1 (09-10/2020) 
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Reviewer: Michael De Sapio


One of the “genres” I love best is virtuoso solo violin music of the 17th century, most brilliantly represented by the Austro-Germans Schmelzer, Biber, and Walther. I am grateful that the early music movement of the last few decades has allowed us to get to know a body of work which, in addition to pointing the way to Bach’s masterpieces for the violin, provides a rich reservoir of stimulating music to be enjoyed for its own sake. Now the English musicians Hazel Brooks and David Pollock (collectively Duo Dorado) have uncovered a group of previously unknown sonatas by Gottfried Finger (1655–1730).

Brooks’s copious program notes inform us that Finger was, like his older contemporary Biber, a German-speaking composer born in the Moravia region of Bohemia. He immigrated to London in 1685 and contributed to the city’s musical life as a violinist, including in the theater, collaborating with the luminaries Purcell and Eccles. He was briefly employed in King James II’s Catholic Chapel and published the first set of solo sonatas ever printed in England. Things turned sour when Finger lost a “Prize Musick” composing competition to a younger, more fashionable composer, and he left England in disgust, apparently convinced that his being foreign and Catholic had played a role in the verdict. Finger came to London at a time when the violin was beginning to overtake the viola da gamba in popularity. He played and wrote music for both instruments, but his violin music must have startled English audiences with its display of what the instrument could do.

The sonatas on this disc do not come from Finger’s published collection, but from manuscripts that Brooks found in the British Library. This is presumably their first recording. Brooks relates the sonatas to the stylus fantasticus style: short sections that alternate among slow sustained arias, brilliant improvisatory toccatas, tuneful dances, and impassioned recitatives, all linked together unpredictably in a mosaic style. Unsurprisingly for this period, there are a few movements based on ground basses. Finger catered to the taste of his host country in some movements, which have the flavor of English country dances or of the Purcellian school, but the general style is an amalgam of the Italian and German. These 13 sonatas keep to a limited cycle of keys that curiously excludes G Major or Minor. Brooks mentions in her notes that the ordering of keys was carefully contrived in deference to meantone temperament, the tuning also adopted for this recording.

As much as I would have loved to have discovered a rare gem, my feelings about the music and the performances are mixed. Finger does not possess Biber or Schmelzer’s quality of melodic invention—nor that of J. J. Vilsmayr, whose Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are worthy of exploration. In contrast to the intricate artfulness of Biber’s sonatas, Finger’s seem almost casually and spontaneously thrown together. Brooks shines in the sparkling passage work, which she plays cleanly and brilliantly. I find her somewhat less effective in the lyrical, sustained movements, where her phrasing can be a bit awkward and she and her partner do not always prevent the music from feeling stagnant.

In a time when we routinely hear fussy and overblown continuo, Duo Dorado has hit upon an elegant solution: They play some of the sonatas with organ and some with harpsichord. No plucked or sustaining bass instrument (or tambourine, for that matter) is heard, which I find refreshing. It seems performers are starting to realize that the duo format is an authentic solution for performing Baroque solo sonatas.

I see a recording of Finger’s ensemble sonatas listed in the Fanfare Archive, but none of his solo violin sonatas. Thus, Duo Dorado has presented something that didn’t exist before. While there are no grand revelations here, those interested in violin music of this period should give this interesting minor figure a listen.

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