Trio Settecento: An Italian Sojourn. Dario Castello (fl. 1621-1636): Sonata ottava in D minor; Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713): Sonata in C major, Op. 5/3; George Frideric Handel (1685-1756): Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a; Pietro Antonnio Locatelli (1695-1764): Sonata da camera in F major, Op. 6/2; Biagio Marini (1678-1741): Sonata a due in D minor; Alessandro Stradella (1644-1692): Sinfonia in D minor; Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770): Sonata Pastorale in A major; Francesco Veracini (1690-1750): Sonata in D minor, Op. 2/2; Trio Settecento. Rachel Barton Pine, violin: Nicola Gagliano, 1770 in original unaltered condition; John Mark Rozendaal, ’cello: unknown Tyrolean maker, 18th century; David Schrader, harpsichord: Willard Martin, Bethlehem, PA, 1997, single-manual, after a concept of Marin Mersenne (1617), Tuning: Unequal temperament by David Schrader; Çedille CDR 900000099, © 2007, TT 70:51, $16.

Trio Settecento: A German Bouquet. J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Fugue in G minor, S. 1026, Sonata in E minor, S. 1023; Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707): Sonata in C major, Op. 1/5; Phillip Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714): Sonata No. 3 in A major; Johann Phillip Krieger (1649-1725): Sonata in D minor, Op. 2/2; Georg Muffat (1653-1704): Sonata in D major; Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755): Sonata in D major; Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680): Sonata in D minor; Johann Schop (d. 1667): Nobleman.  Rachel Barton Pine, violin: Nicola Gagliano, 1770 in original unaltered condition; John Mark Rozendaal, bass viola da gamba: William Turner, London, 1650, ’cello: unknown Tyrolean maker, 18th century; David Schrader, harpsichord: Willard Martin, Bethlehem, PA, 1997, single-manual, after a concept of Marin Mersenne (1617), positiv organ: Gerrit Klop, Netherlands, Tuning: Unequal temperament by David Schrader; Çedille CDR 900000114, © 2009, TT 78:30, $16.

Trio Settecento: A French Soirée. François Couperin (1668-1733), Allemande, Gavotte, Sarabande, Sicilienne, Troisième concert; Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764): Sonate en Sol majeur [C major], Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687): 4 excerpts from Ballet Royal de Flore; Marin Marais (1656-1728): Chaconne, La Guitare, Prélude; Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Quatrième Concert; Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747), Sonate Huitième en Ré mineur [D minor]. Rachel Barton Pine, violin: Nicola Gagliano, 1770 in original unaltered condition; John Mark Rozendaal, basse de viol à sept cordes: Jean Ouvrard, 1743; David Schrader, harpsichord: Lawrence G. Eckstein, West Lafayette, IN, 1983, replica of a Dumont-Taskin in the museum of the Paris Conservatoire, Tuning: Unequal temperament; Çedille CDR 900000129, © 2011, TT 78:55, $16.

Trio Settecento: An English Fancy. Thomas Baltzar (c. 1631-1663): John Come Kiss Me Now; William Byrd (1539-1623): Sellinger’s Rownde; Tobias Hume (c. 1569-1645): Captaine Hume’s Lament; John Jenkins (1592-1678): Suite No. 2 in G minor; William Lawes (1605-1645): Suite No. 8 in D major, Henry Purcell (1659-1695): 5 selections from Ayres for the Theater, Hornpipe from Abdelazar, Pavan in B-flat major. Rachel Barton Pine, violin: Jason Viseltear, 1999, Renaissance treble violin based on models of Gasparo da Saló (1542-1609), John Mark Rozendaal, bass viola da gamba: William Turner, London, 1650, David Schrader, harpsichord: Willard Martin, Bethlehem, PA, 1997, single-manual, after a concept of Marin Mersenne (1617), positiv organ: James Louder, Montréal, 2009; Çedille CDR 900000135, © 2012, TT 79:47, $16.

When the fourth and final CD in this set (listed above in chronological order) of historically-informed, creative and representative country-specific recitals arrived in my mailbox a short while ago, it occurred to me that I ought to do a comprehensive review in a single piece, because these are all extremely fine, interesting, and enjoyable carefully constructed programs composed of a few fairly well-known pieces but mostly lesser, little, or un-known ones, and the performances are all exceptional, the instruments all “sweet sounding,” and the program notes by Rozendaal in the booklets remarkably thorough. Because many of the composers are obscure to us, I have included their life dates in the listings above (They are curiously missing from the French Soirée CD booklet’s track listings, appearing only in its notes – a revision of those for consistency across the set would be a good idea for a future reprinting/re-release.); it perhaps overstuffs them with information, but will require less detailing in the text below. Composers and works are listed alphabetically, not in chronological or playing order. I listened to each CD as it came in and subsequently as well, but simply never got around to writing them up individually, so I listened to them all in succession a couple times again – sheer delight!

Unlike the European Grand Tours of the 19th-century English Romantic poets (Think Lord Byron.), and painters from all Northern climes beginning in the 17th century, for whom the final destination was Italy, cradle of the Renaissance where vestiges of ancient Classical cultures were everywhere evident, in Rome in particular, this Tour begins there because it was there that the string instrument family as we know it today, with the violin as its leader, was born, the product of the craftsmen of Cremona, who by trial and error perfected it and made it sing out like a treble voice, and where the sonata form – sonata is, after all, an Italian word – was also created and refined, especially in Venice by the ultra-prolific Antonio Vivaldi, not represented in the set it will be noted, and from whence it spread northward and outward to conquer and convert all of Europe.

A glance at the content of the programs will show that they became increasingly diverse as the years went by, since all but one of the stops on the Italian Sojourn are sonatas of one sort or another, and only two flowers in the German Bouquet are in a different form. There is not a single sonata on the English Fancy CD, which is dominated by fantasias (fantasia/fantazia/fantazie, all words related to ‘fancy’) and pavans, which begin each of the four suites. The French Soirée naturally places the dance and dance rhythms in the spotlight with 2 allemandes, 2 courants, 2 gavottes, a minuet, 2 sarabandes, and a sicilienne. Its first 29+ minutes are presented like a royal divertissement that ends with a chaconne, one of three on the disk that features some character pieces, the form so popular in that country that spread all over Europe in the 19th century, on the second half. The sole fugue in the set is, appropriately, the JSB one in the German Bouquet, which also has a single chaconne in the Ehrlebach, the only one to appear elsewhere.

The instrumentation and the instruments used also changed in the same direction; the musicians clearly learned from their initial experiences and became increasingly adventurous, pushing themselves to uncover new gems and master new skills. This is not to suggest that the first two CDs are in any way disappointing or inferior; it simply makes the set progress to a scintillating climax, which, curiously, is also something of a step backwards in time closer to the Renaissance, because it does not include any Handel, whose life and career were the epitome of the standard Grand Tour, progressing from Germany to Italy and on to fame and fortune in England. This CD is also different from the first three in that two of the works presented are composites of movements chosen from more than one actual work by their composers. Some are transcriptions for this instrumentation of pieces written for larger or different ensembles. Some purists may find this not to their liking, but this was standard practice at the time and throughout the intervening centuries: music has always been performed in adaptations by the musicians available to play it, and reductions and transcriptions have always been an important way to disseminate it to a wider public and get it into private homes where it could be performed by more or less talented amateurs.

Early instruments were designed and crafted for nuanced musical expression and variety of sound across their registers while modern ones are designed and made for uniformity of sound and power of projection. As a result, for my ears at least, this music simply does not display its virtues when performed on modern instruments, and the closer the musicians get to those for which it was composed and on which it was originally played, the better it sounds. But playing an earlier instrument requires different and more challenging skills, because it doesn’t do as much for the player, who has to do more of the work to create the sound and the expression. These musicians have truly mastered their instruments; their playing comes across as fluent, fluid, and perfectly natural and the sounds are simply astonishing. For example, Barton Pine makes her violin sound like a bagpipe in the Muzette movement of Couperin’s 3e Concert and Rozendaal makes his bass viol sound like a guitar, both strummed and plucked, in the Marais piece of that title!

The booklets all follow the same format, with a reproduction of a period painting on their cover, the recording and instrument credits, including bows and strings, on its inside, and the track listings and timings on page 3. These are followed by a “Personal Note” from Barton Pine in which she talks about the instruments used and her journey in mastering them – she is considerably younger than her colleagues – and the journey of the trio in the decade and a half since it formed for a specific recording purpose: Handel’s violin sonatas. (They are not disbanding, thankfully!; this project was planned to end after the fourth program.) After this note come Rozendaal’s aforementioned enlightening “Notes on the program,” always opening with some general comments and then discussing each composer and the works chosen, and always superbly written; his scholarship is impressive and impeccable! Then follows the “About the Artists” section with the bio and a photo of the Trio and individual bios of each of its members, and, in all but the English CD booklet, the information about, accompanied by a photo of, the recording venue: the 550-seat Nichols Concert Hall of the Music Institute of Chicago, the former sanctuary of a restored (2003) and re-purposed Christian Scientist Church in Evanston, IL, designed by renowned Chicago architect Solon S. Beman and built in 1912, sometimes preceding, sometimes following the artist info. The back covers, except for vol. 1 which features a detail of its cover painting, list the previous volumes in the series with photos of their booklet covers.

This is the finest recorded set of historically-informed Baroque period recitals that I have ever encountered, for its selection of works, their arrangement within each program and across the series, and for the instrumentation and the simply stunning performances. I have been following the historically-informed-performance-on-period-instrument movement for over a quarter century, heard many truly fine live performances as well as numerous recordings, and personally know many musicians active in the field, but know of nothing that matches this set. Every aspect of each of these CDs shows the enormous care, research, scholarship, and musicianship that went into their preparation and execution, individually and as a whole, with each one succeeding in capturing the essence of each nation’s preferred genres, favored instruments, and characteristic style. Çedille should consider bundling the four CDs into a set and offering it at a reduced price in that format.