Take a little gypsy fiddler, add Stephane Grapelli, Paganini and a smattering of blue grass and you’ve got Baroque violinist Andrew Manze. On Tuesday October 30 as part of the Duke Institute of the Arts new series, Illuminations, Manze joined with harpsichordist Richard Eggar to present a spectacular display of a little known musical tradition of the 17th century known as Stylus Phantasticus (fantastic style). Now, we’ve all had dealings with the original instrument Mafia, those scholar-performers who painstakingly research and present old music “exactly” the way they think the composer intended, often nearly coming to blows with each other over issues of authenticity. But these two have something else going.

The term Stylus Phantasticus refers to a loose genre of Baroque instrumental music unconstrained by strictures of form, suffused with elaborate ornamental improvisation, and often containing sudden harmonic shifts and jarring dissonances. Far from being erudite and obscure, it is directly related to the fantasia. To a great degree, the only way to convey the impression of this music is to hear it, and we have included references to several CDs by Manze and Eggar. The program consisted of works mostly by obscure seventeenth-century composers, with the exception of Arcangelo Corelli, an innovator and leading proponent of the style. But that didn’t take any toll on the quality of the concert.

Manze and Eggar definitely place musicianship ahead of scholarship. While musicologists and purists may have had a few dubious moments, we’re also talking about showmanship and theatricality of the highest order. Manze displayed the epitome of technical and musical skill on an instrument whose supposed advantages over the modern violin often seem more theoretical than real. It was as if Manze had transformed himself into a Baroque virtuoso, able to milk the most out of the much vaunted dynamic capabilities of the Baroque fiddle-and in tune

You realized right off the bat that you were there not so much for the greatness of the music as for the creativity, ingenuity and technical wizardry of the performers. What makes the Manze and Eggar team so unusual is that they have so mastered and internalized this improvisatory language that they play with both the freedom and surefootedness of a first rate jazz ensemble. Much of the music of the Stylus Phantasticus contains some written out ornamentation for both the violin and the continuo (harpsichord). But Manze and Eggar added a lot of their own stuff to the brew.

For example, although the harpsichord is often wrongfully accused of lacking the ability to create subtle dynamics, the continuo player actually does have the freedom to create dynamic effects by thinning or thickening the texture of the accompaniment. When Manze had a soft passage, Eggar adjusted the texture of the continuo to match. In more boisterous moments, the two seemed to be having a competition in flamboyance. Clearly, both of them were having a ball playing this stuff, and they carried the audience with them.

Four of the works on the program were sonatas by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (but always referred to as Pandolfi). This little known musician composed a dozen violin sonatas with cryptic titles, invoking the personal characteristics of friends and/or colleagues in the Innsbruck orchestra. For example, the Sonata Op.3, No.5 is named La Clemente after a castrato by that name. The first part of the sonata is the imitation of vocal exercises and warm-ups, the last of a lovely soprano aria. The technical virtuosity and often idiosyncratic harmony-both written and improvised-of these pieces can be compared to the Mannerist school of Baroque painting and poetry, as well as the elaborate scrollery of the architecture of the period. In other words, quirkiness as a means to portraying exaggerated emotions or, indeed, for its own sake.

Don’t miss the opportunity to experience a taste of the fantastic style. Here are a few representative recordings:

Pandolfi: Complete Violin Sonatas HMU 907241
Phantasticus: 17th Century Italian Violin Music HMU 907211
Uccellini: Sonatas HMU 907196