[This interview was done for the start-up of Amazon’s classical music section. Manze, whom I spoke with on the phone, was utterly charming.]

“The Devil’s Sonata,” a CD of Tartini violin music played by Andrew Manze, hit the classical music world like a bombshell. In the New York Times, Richard Taruskin called it “the most convincing `period performance’ I have ever heard.” And I’m sure I won’t be the only writer who calls it the outstanding classical CD of 1998 (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907213).

It’s the most drastic approach to baroque music since Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, in which Foss recomposed Bach as if heard in a dream. Yet it’s completely convincing. As Manze plays Tartini, the music takes on a hallucinatory intensity. For anyone who already knows the music, the sheer unpredictability of Manze’s playing–where is he going to take off next?–makes his disc an unforgettable experience.

After hearing Manze’s Tartini, though, listening to his other unaccompanied CD of Telemann violin music (HMU 907137) could be a disappointment at first. The music is brilliantly played, but it’s played relatively straight, mostly as Telemann wrote it.

Why the difference? Manze (man zee, he says) has already addressed that question. “Itâ’ ironic that when you do something like The Devil’s Sonata, people expect that everything you do will go that far in that direction. The actual music of Tartini took me in that direction, while in Handel or Telemann the music takes me in a different direction. It would be just as wrong to make Handel sound like Tartini as to make Tartini sound like Handel.”

Manze’s set of Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 (HMU 907228.29), in which he leads the Academy of Ancient Music, does go in a different direction. It’s played just the way Handel wrote it. Manze took that approach because he had read that Handel was a real tyrant of a conductor, one who sometimes rehearsed an orchestral piece ten times until the musicians could play it the way he had written it.

Handel, Manze feels, told you most of what you needed to know about playing his music in his scores. But Tartini speaks another language. “Tartini left hundreds of examples of how to ornament,” Manze explains. “He’ll give you several ways of playing a four-note passage, turning it into as many as hundreds of notes. I got a feel for how Tartini would approach his own music. When I did the Tartini disc I got as much of his music as I could and played through it. I’m trying to convince myself that I am Tartini, impersonating the composer rather than just playing his music.”

You can best appreciate what Manze does if you already know a more standard performance of the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. The more familiar you are with the music, the more you will be startled with the ways Manze departs from the written score. For one thing, he is the first violinist on records to play Tartini without accompaniment. As published, the Sonatas have parts for an accompanying instrument that can play chords, like a harpsichord or a piano. But Manze found a letter of Tartini’s in which he said he played the music himself without accompaniment. So that’s the way he does it.

Manze elaborates freely on Tartini’s melodic lines, sometimes veering off into improvisation. “The score is shorthand,” he says, “and it’s a little like a jazz score. The performances of mine that are most successful are the ones that get furthest from the blueprint.” But his improvisations are firmly grounded in Tartini’s musical idiom. “It would be inappropriate to suddenly shoot off and have a passage sounding like Stan Getz. So it’s like speaking a language and not getting off into another one.”

As the new Handel set shows, Manze isn’t confining himself to music that invites such drastic changes as Tartini’s. But he’s really looking forward to a CD of music by Pandolfi he will be recording in November. Who’s Pandolfi? He’s another Italian Baroque composer, and Manze likes his attitude. “He gives you help to reach a certain point and says, I trust you to turn this into a performance. If you stuck to playing what was on the page you’d end up with a bland, half-finished piece. Even in recording I try to leave it to the inspiration of the moment, see where the instrument and the music want to go. I do my homework and practice so I know I can play the music, but I try not to make too many decisions about it.”

That spontaneity comes across in “The Devil’s Trill,” a recording that captures the feeling of a live performance yet holds up to repeated listening. Manze thinks of the microphone as “representing thousands of pairs of ears,” and even in the recording studio you can hear the urgency with which he wants to communicate the music to all of those ears. To these ears, he succeeds brilliantly.

Leslie Gerber.

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