musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Italian flute concertos of the 18th century

[I] "Venetian Flute Concertos"
Frank Theuns, transverse flute
Les Buffardins
Dir: Frank Theuns
rec: Oct 23 - 25, 2017, Antwerp, AMUZ
Accent - ACC 24343 (© 2018) (53'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751): Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in d minor, op. 9,2; Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785): Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D (GroF 675); Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in c minor (RV 441); Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in g minor, op. 10,2 'La notte' (RV 439); Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in a minor (RV 440)

François Fernandez, Maia Silberstein, violin; Barbara Konrad, viola; Rainer Zipperling, cello; Frank Coppieters, double bass; Israel Golani, theorbo; Siebe Henstra, harpsichord

[II] "Soave e virtuoso - Concerti for flauto, flautino, traversa"
Alexis Kossenko, recordera, transverse fluteb
Les Ambassadeurs
Dir: Alexis Kossenko
rec: Jan 18 - 20, 2017, Paris
Aparté - AP156 (© 2017) (82'09")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in Fa; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770), arr anon: Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D (G 291)b; Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in G (G 293)b; Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in G (G 294)b; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in c minor (RV 441)a; Concerto for flautino, strings and bc in C (RV 443) (played in G)a

Stefano Rossi, Varoujan Doneyan, Lathika Vitanage, Dagmar Valentova, Ewa Chmielewska, Malina Mantcheva, violin; Anna Nowak-Pokrzywinska, Laurent Muller, viola; Hager Hanana, Gulrim Choi, cello; Love Persson, double bass; Simone Vallerotonda, archlute, guitar; Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, harpsichord

Solo concertos for flute by Italian composers of the baroque era are rather rare. Several recordings of such concertos have been released, even in the era of 'traditional' performance practice, but most of them include concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and a few other composers. However, several of the concertos included in such recordings are of doubtful authenticity or were originally conceived for another instrument, such as the recorder, the oboe or the violin. The transverse flute seems to have been received with less enthusiasm in Italy than in other parts of Europe. That goes generally for wind instruments: the oboe was introduced to Italy at the very end of the 17th century, and the transverse flute only started to find any dissemination in the 1710s and 1720s. Vivaldi composed the largest amount of concertos for the transverse flute, other composers largely confined themselves to sonatas for flute. The difference in appreciation for the flute can be illustrated by the set of concertos which Vivaldi published as his Op. 10. Most of them were originally conceived as concerti da camera with recorder. As the collection was intended for the international market, Vivaldi adapted them for the more conventional scoring of transverse flute, strings and bc, and added some new concertos to make the then conventional number of six.

The two discs reviewed here don't fundamentally change the traditional view on the role of the flute in Italy. That is to say, Frank Theuns, in his liner-notes, comes up with an interesting observation. "While woodwind instrument making flourished in 18th century France and Germany, Italian makers were hampered in their working conditions and trade by a rigid system of guild control, causing in this way a scarcity of flutes, oboes and bassoons in the region. There might have been an important influx of woodwind instruments into the Italian states in the first two decades of the century, supplied by French and German makers such as Denner, Oberlender and probably also Hotteterre. The recent discovery of quite a few interesting flutes of Italian provenance might however prove more intense activity of flute making than was assumed." He uses copies of several such rare instruments in his recording. But this only concerns the presence of flutes, not the repertoire.

Theuns plays three of Vivaldi's concertos; one of them (RV 441) was originally intended for the recorder. The Concerto in D, op. 9,2 by Tomaso Albinoni is scored for oboe. "While the strings and the bass are faithful to the original D minor key of this concerto playing on Venetian high pitch, the flute transposes to the more suitable E minor key in low French pitch. This procedure was quite common to travelling soloists all over Europe." That may be true, but it seems questionable that Albinoni's concertos were played by travelling soloists. In his time public concertos were rare as were travelling soloists. The great virtuosos of the time, such as Veracini, Locatelli or Leclair, mostly played their own music. Moreover, it is hardly coincidental that these three composer/performers were all violinists by profession. The time of the virtuoso flautist had yet to come.

The Concerto in a minor by Baldassare Galuppi is an example of a piece which raises questions about its authenticity. "Though many tutti passages of this work clearly bear the signature of its author, one could doubt the authenticity of some of the solo passages", Theuns writes. Therefore he decided to partly rewrite the solo part. In the first two movements "only a few harmonic and rhythmic adjustments were made", but the last movement was more extensively altered. I have strong reservations in regard to such a procedure. I basically think that performers should not improve what composers have written down. Maybe the copyist of this piece - which has been preserved in the Mecklenburgische Landesbibliothek in Schwerin - has made some serious errors, but that cannot be proven, unless the original piece has been found. If a performer thinks that the piece as it has been preserved, is not good enough, he should not play and record it.

I also have problems with the way Vivaldi's Concerto in g minor has been treated here. "A few compelling signs of textual revision, undoubtedly made by the composer himself, appear on the manuscript of the chamber concerto version (RV 104), written some years earlier. The choice was made to follow mainly this particular source combining it with some elements (the newly inserted Largo and the instrumentation) of RV 439." This means that the version that is played here, in fact never existed. It is a modern 'invention', so to speak, and I find that rather doubtful from the angle of historical performance practice.

Frank Theuns is a fine player, but rather introverted. There is nothing against that; it works very well in the slow movements, which he plays in an expressive manner. It is in the faster movements where I find his performances too restrained. The andante from Albinoni's concerto is more like an adagio. The allegros are mostly not as vivid as one would like, and the last movement from Galuppi's concerto is not "very lively" as the indication allegro assai requires. Especially for lovers and/or players of the transverse flute the instruments he uses may be the main attraction of this disc. Those who are more generally interested in baroque concertos may feel a little unsatisfied by this recording.

Alexis Kossenko, in the liner-notes to his recording at Aparté, admits that Italian music was dominated by the violin, and wind instruments were much more popular in Germany and France. However, he adds that "Italy teemed with brilliant wind players who had careers abroad: the Besozzi dynasty, for example, or the girls of La Pietà. In terms of instrument making, those made by Anciutti and Palanca were of exceptional quality. As for the repertoire, concertos for oboe, bassoon, straight and transverse flute abound and are distinctive for their lyricism as much as for their vivacity." Even so, his programme includes three recorder concertos - which he plays at the instrument intended by the composer - and three concertos by Tartini, which are arrangements of violin concertos. Therefore one has to conclude that his programming does nothing to refute the generally-held view that Italian baroque flute concertos are rare.

The Tartini concertos are from a set of four (one of which is considered of doubtful authenticity and has been omitted here), which are preserved in manuscript in Uppsala. They were acquired in Italy by the Frenchman Jean Lefébure in the 1750s before settling in Sweden. The arranger is unknown, but it seems likely that he was a virtuosic flautist, considering the demanding character of the solo parts and the abundance of ornamentation in the adagios of two of the concertos. Kossenko decided to treat the latter with caution, and that seems a wise decision, as Tartini emphasized the importance of expression over sheer virtuosity. As the ornamentation is not by Tartini's hand, there is no reason to follow slavishly what the arranger has written down. Kossenko also took an editorial decision in regard to the Concerto in D: in the flute arrangement the part of the cello of the concertino is missing; apparently the arranger just forgot to copy it. As the originals are known, it was not much of a problem to reconstruct that part from the violin version. Obviously, there is no objection whatsoever to such a procedure.

Tartini's love of expression comes especially to the fore in the slow movements, and Kossenko's performance explores their character to the full. The fast movements have strongly theatrical traits, and Kossenko and his colleagues bring that out as well. These three concertos, although not by Tartini in their flute versions, are very worthwhile additions to the catalogue of 18th-century flute concertos. This recording is the best case for these pieces one can imagine.

These flute concertos are the main attraction of this disc. The remaining concertos by Vivaldi and Giuseppe Sammartini are very well known and available in many recordings. In these pieces Kossenko is far less restrained in his addition of ornamentation. A good example is the slow movement from Vivaldi's Concerto in G (RV 443). Basically he is right: Tartini did not criticize Vivaldi for no reason as he thought that virtuosity in the latter's music was too often a goal in itself. However, I feel that Kossenko does overdo it, even though I admire his creativity. However, what is right and what is over the top is probably not something one can prove from the sources, but rather a matter of taste.

The Vivaldi lover will notice that RV 443 is played in another key than usual. In the booklet, Kossenko states: "[We] noticed a handwritten annotation by Vivaldi, long ignored, on RV 443 and 444: Gli stromenti trasportati alla 4ta bassa. It was supposed that this was a possible variant so that the concerto could be played in G on a soprano recorder." This is how it is played here.

It does not make much sense to directly compare the two discs reviewed here. Only Vivaldi's Concerto in c minor (RV 441) is included in both programmes, and whereas Kossenko plays it on the recorder, as intended by Vivaldi, Theuns performs it on the transverse flute. A further difference is the size of the ensemble: Les Buffardins performs its programme with one instrument per part, whereas Les Ambassadeurs comprises six violins, two violas and two cellos. Both options are fully legitimate, by the way. Obviously the difference in line-up effects the outcome, but is not entirely responsible for the different ways of performance. Overall Kossenko and his colleagues take a more theatrical approach to the repertoire, whereas Theuns and his ensemble are much more restrained. I can enjoy both, but in the end Kossenko's interpretation is probably closer to the intentions of the composers and may be more captivating in the long run. The Aparté disc may be the more inviting for repeated listens.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Alexis Kossenko
Frank Theuns & Les Buffardins
Les Ambassadeurs

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