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Willem de Fesch – Little Known Baroque Master to Rival the Greats

07-01-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 122

This recording by La Sfera Armoniosa of several works by the less-than-well-known composer, Willem de Fesch, is a treasure. The music is fully comparable to the best output from the Baroque. It is sophisticated, it shimmers. It is at least as colorful, playful, and inventive as that of his contemporaries. And it is beautifully performed and recorded on this release.

Willem de Fesch: Concerti Grossi and Violin Concerto, La Sfera Armoniosa conducted by Mike Fentross, with Lidewij van der Voort (violin). Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording 2019 (DXD) HERE

Willem de Fesch (1687-1761) was quite the big deal in his day. A highly sought virtuoso violinist, conductor, composer of operas, concertmaster for Handel, he was born in Alkmaar, active in Amsterdam and Antwerp, and worked in London giving concerts and conducting in Handel's orchestra. He also was apparently quite a character with a strong independent streak to his nature whom conductor Mike Fentross describes as "a fascinating, passionate, quick-tempered, humorous, and sensitive man".

While never in Italy, de Fesch certainly heard the works of the Italians, particularly Vivaldi. This is evident simply from listening to his music. But there is nothing derivative here. All is quite fresh, innovative, and original. Yet easily at home with the music of Locatelli, Pergolesi, Vivaldi, or Handel.

Unfortunately, many of his compositions are lost to us. Only one aria from his English-language oratorio "Judith" has survived. His second oratorio, "Joseph," has come down to us intact. He composed a lot of music for stage performances, such as the concerts in C and A-minor on this album, but most have never been published. And much of it in manuscript form was lost in a theatre fire. The works on this album from Opus III and Opus X were most fortunately published in 1718 and 1741, respectively.

It is in comparing the music of Opus III to that of the later compositions in Opus X that one gets a sense of the musical maturation of de Fesch. The album opens with a Concerto Grosso from Opus X that runs with nearly 13-minutes of non-stop inventiveness and lively action. Such a nice introduction to the intellect and musical instincts of this most interesting composer from 300 years ago.

La Sfera Armoniosa is a Dutch baroque ensemble led by lutenist Mike Fentross. Founded in 1992, the group focuses on performing music of the 17th and 18th centuries. They are comprised of a core group of eight performers (gamba, violin, viola, harpsichord, baroque harp, recorder, and lute). Depending on the work to be performed, the instrumentation will be varied and guest artists may be invited.

In this recording, La Sfera Armoniosa is joined by the baroque violinist, Lidewij van der Voort, co-founder of the Dutch baroque orchestra Holland Baroque Society where she was concertmaster for many years. And quite a nice contribution she makes as we hear in the solo violin parts of the Concerto in A-minor, track 5, as well as solo violin and violin leader segments in other works.

This is a very lovely and gratifying album. I highly recommend it.

And did I mention the sound quality? Outstanding—another excellent recording from Bert van der Wolf. This is a live recording, but the audience is completely inaudible except at the very, very end of the final track where enthusiastic applause is retained on the album. Supremely natural, excellent detail. The timbre of the instruments as captured in the recording is a joy to hear.

All images courtesy of Northstar Recording Services