Brilliance out of obscurity

Acclaimed violinist Andrew Manze prefers to work with composers you've never heard of, as he tells Andrew Clarke
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The Independent Culture

Sitting in the peaceful surroundings of his Oxford kitchen, Baroque violinist Andrew Manze is rather more concerned about the everyday perils of his craft than having clinched one of the most prestigious prizes in the classical music world. "It's a precarious profession," he muses. "All it takes is to chop an onion without proper care and you've lost a finger!"

Sitting in the peaceful surroundings of his Oxford kitchen, Baroque violinist Andrew Manze is rather more concerned about the everyday perils of his craft than having clinched one of the most prestigious prizes in the classical music world. "It's a precarious profession," he muses. "All it takes is to chop an onion without proper care and you've lost a finger!"

Manze, with his harpsichordist partner Richard Eggar, has just won a Gramophone Award for the Baroque instrumental album of the year; a recording of violin sonatas by the hitherto unknown 17th-century composer Giovanni Pandolfi.

"It's a great honour," says the Kent-born violinist. "I think it's a measure of how far we have come in our understanding of Baroque music that a composer such as Pandolfi can cause so much excitement, and I'm just glad to have been the one who has brought him into the limelight."

In an industry fixated on tried-and-tested "classics", Manze's risk-taking in staking his reputation on such an obscure master is an electrifying jolt to the system. This is a musician who likes to live dangerously, who has variously been dubbed "a gypsy" and "the Grapelli of the Baroque". Hear him swoop and swirl his way through passages of breathtaking bravura, or let his bow stutter across a drawn-out note, and one is transported back to an age where music touched the head and heart in a much more direct fashion than now.

Manze's far-reaching imagination is allied to a flair for outlandish ornamentation and passionate spontaneity, a happy marriage of scholarship and improvisation that has marked him out as one of the finest of a new breed of early music specialists. Aged 35 , he is fired with boyish enthusiasm. Ask him about an obscure point of 17th-century notation and a light will flash in his eyes before he rushes upstairs to his study to bring down a score. He will talk as readily about the pleasures of unearthing a forgotten manuscript in a dusty library as he does about the miraculous sparks that occur during live performance, or the satisfaction of introducing a younger generation to the wonders of Bach or Vivaldi.

This isn't the first time Manze has won a Gramophone for exhuming unusual repertoire. In 1995, he and his fellow members of the now defunct trio Romanesca swept all before them with a premiere recording of the astonishing violin sonatas by Heinrich Biber - complete with outrageous instrumental imitations of cuckoos, cats and frogs.

Since then, he's specialised in barely recognised names from the period between Monteverdi and JS Bach. Alongside Biber and Pandolfi, he's brought us works by contemporaries such as Marco Uccellini, Biagio Marini and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer - masters of a particularly florid, extravagant style that succeeding generations have been over keen to dismiss as mere showmanship.

"Perhaps I'm just a sucker for these violinist-composers of the second rank," he says by way of explanation. "But they were supremely gifted craftsmen who produced brilliant works themselves."

For Manze, Pandolfi's very obscurity was a challenge. "Apart from his music, virtually nothing else is known about him. There are very few pieces to this jigsaw, and we have had to construct the picture. Luckily, I have a very vivid imagination and one of my techniques is to imagine what these composers would say or play if there were here with us today. I find Pandolfi, in particular, very interesting; I think if I were to meet him, I would like him immensely."

Thanks to Manze, we now have our own opportunity to meet and like Pandolfi, a composer so obscure that Manze admits that the CV he gives of him in the notes to his recording is mostly guess-work. We know that he was born in Umbria and got a job in the 1650s at the ducal court in Innsbruck, a melting pot of some of the finest musicians of the day. In 1662, he left Innsbruck, but where he landed up is anyone's guess. In 1660, he published the two volumes of violin sonatas Manze has recorded.

"It's taken a long time for Baroque violin playing to take this music on its own terms. It was very avant-garde for its time. It must have been wonderfully shocking to hear it with the ears of a 17th-century listener."

But for modern-day audiences it's still quite startling to hear how Pandolfi (or is it Manze?) bends and twists not only the violin line, but also the tempo, throwing in a whole arsenal of effects - portamento, trills, chromatics - to produce a music that commands the closest attention.

"As a player, I improvise quite a bit," says Manze, "but most of the really shocking stuff in these scores is actually written down by the composer quite explicitly."

In order to present Pandolfi as he believes he should be heard, the violinist has had to apply lessons he has learned from long study of Baroque music. "The important thing is that this notation is the basis for the performer to build upon, in much the same way that a folk singer will interpret a song. And one thing we do know about 17th-century style was that the players liked to imitate the best singers of the day - for composers at that time, the human voice was the ideal, the pinnacle. And the allusions and imagery are so vivid in these pieces that contemporary audiences could probably listen to it as if Pandolfi was giving a speech rather than playing music."

Manze is keen to share the limelight with Richard Eggar, whose harpsichord provides much more than mere accompaniment. "I owe Richard an awful lot as my equal. I've been playing with him for 17 years now, and he was doing things when we were recording the Pandolfi that I've never heard anyone do before."

British audiences have not had many opportunities of catching the Manze magic, but that is set to change. He is keen to undertake more concerts in Britain, and as Associate Director of the Academy of Ancient Music, is taking on an increasingly heavy workload as soloist, leader and conductor. The orchestra is playing a couple of concerts in Britain this month before heading off for a 17-date tour of the United States, which takes them from Boston to Berkeley via such culturally overlooked spots as Laramie and Tucson. From there, it's back to London and St John's, Smith Square, where the band has a position as resident period-instrument orchestra.

As if this weren't enough, with so many musicians now taking an interest in historically informed playing, Manze sees another opportunity he would like to take up. "It's high time someone wrote a modern treatise on Baroque violin-playing. Perhaps it's time we work out exactly what this thing is." Who better to find answers to that than Andrew Manze?


Andrew Manze and the AAM play St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (01603 766400) tonight, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403403) and St John's Smith Square, London (020-7222 1061) 29 Nov. He appears on his own at HMV, 150 Oxford Street, London on 17 Oct at 6.30pm to play and discuss Pandolfi