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GRAMOPHONE (11/2020)
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DHM 9439763522

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Reviewer: Mark Seow

There are some standout moments on this album. First there is the superlative singing of Jonathan Sells in Biber Nisi Dominus aedificaverit Domum, sonorous and rounded all the way down to his lowest notes, which seem to emanate from earth’s core. Wrapped around Sells, the obbligato playing by violinist and director of Les Passions de l’Âme, Meret Lüthi, is thrillingly tactile and exploratory: vibrant in shapes and explosive in scratch. Lüthi is fervent that we know the fabric of her sound; she and Sells thus form a marriage that might make one think of Roland Barthes’s 1972 essay The Grain of the Voice for its presentation of song ‘as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings’ as well as the visceral grit of bow against gut. But this ‘grain’ is perhaps taken too far at points in her solo offering. Lüthi’s performance of the Passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas might do with more instrumental resonance, a coaxing of depth from her Jacobus Stainer violin from 1659, rather than from the acoustical kindness that was perhaps too much at play here.

A second highlight is the utter lusciousness that opens Biber’s Partia VII from Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa. The timbral magic created by the two violas d’amore played in clairvoyant sync by Lüthi and Sabine Stoffer, a partner in crime of equal agility and invention, is a delight. The partita is, however, inconsistent in this brilliance: the Gigue is relentless in opacity – the playing occasionally pushed too far from the robust into the unnecessarily comic – and the Trezza is not wholly convincing either in rustic romp or in grace. But the patient are rewarded with sparkling freshness in the performance of the Sonata VII from Schmelzer’s Sacroprofanus concentus musicus. This is Les Passions de l’Âme at their best: colourful and rhetorically well paced (and sometimes wonderfully unpredictable). A simpler way to identify players on individual works would be welcome; all in all, a lovely disc.

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