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CD reviews

Italian violin concertos

[I] "Duello d'archi a Venezia"
Chouchane Siranossian, violin
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Andrea Marcon
rec: July 2022, Lonigo
Alpha - 935 (© 2023) (76'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Concerto in C, op. 3,2; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Concerto in F (D 61); Francesco Maria VERACINI (1690-1768): Concerto a 8 stromenti in D; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in D 'Il grosso Mogul' (RV 208)

Andrea Mion, Elisabeth Passot, oboe; Andreas Lackner, Martin Sillaber, trumpet; Gianpiero Zanocco, Giorgio Baldan, Massimiliano Tieppo, Francesca Bonomo, Francesco Lovato, Giacomo Catana, Mauro Spinazzè, Giuseppe Cabrio, violin; Marilù Barbon, Massimiliano Simonetto, viola; Massimo Raccanelli, Irene Liebau, cello; Alessandro Pivelli, violone; Lorenzo Abate, theorbo; Andrea Marcon, harpsichord; Giulio de Nardo, organ; Philip Tarr, timpani

[II] "Pyrotechnia - Fire + Fury from 18th-century Italy"
Bojan Čičić, violin
The Illyria Consort
Dir: Bojan Čičić
rec: July 29 - 31, 2020, East Woodhay (Hampshire), St Matin's Church
Delphian Records - CDC34249 (© 2021) (72'52")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Concerto in D, op. 3,12; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Concerto in E 'Rondinella vaga e bella' (D 48); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in D 'fatto per Maestro Pisendel' (RV 205); Concerto in D 'per Signora Anna Maria' (RV 213a)

Bojan Čičić, Kinga Ujszászi, Simon Jones, violin; Jane Rogers, Jordan Bowron, viola; Joseph Crouch, cello; Tim Amherst, double bass; David Miller, theorbo; Steven Devine, harpsichord

When around 1600 a new style was introduced in Italy, one of its features was instrumental virtuosity. Composers started to explore the technical possibilities of the different instruments. One of them was the violin, which with time developed into the main instrument. Many sonatas and other pieces for violin were written in the course of the 17th century. Around 1700 a new genre was born: the solo concerto. No wonder that it was the violin, for which most of such works were written in the first decades of the 18th century. The two discs to be reviewed here, include some brilliant specimens of the genre of the violin concerto.

Antonio Vivaldi was probably the first real virtuoso in the time of the solo concerto. Numerous such works he composed, either to perform them himself or for girls from the Ospedale della Pietà. On the present disc we get one of his most famous pieces, with the nickname 'Il grosso Mogul'. It is an early work, as in the 1710s Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed it for organ. It has been preserved in autograph, which is part of the largest collection of Vivaldi works, conserved in Turin. The title of this work refers to the Mughal emperor Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605 and is considered the greatest of Mughal emperors. It is not known why Vivaldi made this allusion, but Venice was a mercantile centre and had many contacts across the world, including the East. It is a prime example of Vivaldi's virtuosity, and includes double stopping. A simplified version was later published as part of his Op. 7.

This attests to what needs to be taken into account with regard to the virtuosity: what has been printed or written down in manuscript is very likely only part of what was actually played. The German lawyer Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach was in Italy in 1715 and wrote in his diary: "[Towards] the end, Vivaldi played an accompagnement solo, in an admirable fashion, to which he finally added a fantasy [i.e. a solo cadence], which quite shocked me, since it is impossible that such has ever been played or can be played, because his fingers came only within a straw's breadth of the bridge, so that there was no space for the bow, and this on all 4 strings with fugues and a velocity which is unbelievable, he astonished everyone with it, but I cannot say that it charmed me as it was more artfully done than it was pleasing to hear".

Pietro Antonio Locatelli was also a great virtuoso, undoubtedly Vivaldi's equal as far as his technical skills are concerned. However, his playing also received a mixed reception. The Dutch organist Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, while acknowledging Locatelli's ability to captivate his audience with his virtuosity, stated that his playing was "so brutal that sensitive ears found it unbearable". Locatelli's violin concertos Op. 3 also attest to the fact that composers, when they published their music, aimed at a wider audience than virtuosos. He added extended cadenzas to the fast movements, which he called capricci, but their inclusion was ad libitum, which means that they could be omitted. After all, the solo parts as they were written were already difficult enough for most performers. The capricci seem to be a kind of compensation for the solo parts in the concertos: these are technically demanding, but not as theatrical as, for instance, the solo parts of many of Vivaldi's concertos, including Il grosso Mogul. That certainly goes for the Concerto No. 2 in C, whose first and third movements have the indication andante.

That is different in the Concerto a 8 stromenti in D by Francesco Maria Veracini. He considered himself the greatest violinist of his time, and his arrogance was proverbial. This piece is comparable with the concerti a molti stromenti by Vivaldi. It is scored for pairs of trumpets and oboes, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The violin has the main solos, but the fast movements also include solo episodes for the pairs of winds. In the slow movement the latter don't participate, and there the violin reigns supreme. In the score this movement is rather short. The two fast movements include the indication à capriccio del primo violino; here Chouchane Siranossian has added cadenzas in the style of Veracini.

With Tartini we are in a different atmosphere. His violin concertos are certainly not devoid of virtuosity, but it is mostly not very demonstrative, and certainly not theatrical in the Vivaldian way. It was Vivaldi's style of writing that Tartini was very critical about. He himself was inspired by literature, especially poetry, when composing his concertos. The Concerto in F is a little different in that in the first movement is descriptive in its first half, as Fourès states: "[The] solo begins with a caccia in F major, although the musical discourse quickly moves away from such descriptive writing with long and richly ornamented lines." As is always the case, Tartini's preference for expression comes especially to the fore in the slow movement, here a grave.

These two recordings offer an interesting confrontation of music by four great violinist-composers from the first half of the 18th century. Despite similarities in the technical requirements of their respective concertos, they represent different ways of treating the instrument in its solo role. That results in quite some variety, which is emphasized by the sensitive performances of Chouchane Siranossian. She is a virtuoso alright, but she treats the material with differentiation. She fully explores the theatrical features, for instance in Vivaldi's concerto, but the expression of the slow movements is not lost on her either. There she plays with subtlety and refinement in her ornamentation and dynamic differentiation. The Venice Baroque Orchestra is once again her perfect partner, moving at the same wavelength.

A note on the booklet: the list of performers mentions two with the addition 'trombone'; that should read 'trumpet'. Fourès refers to horns in Veracini's concerto, where he means trumpets. A little proofreading of the booklet should not have been amiss.

Bojan Čičić recorded a programme which is comparable with Siranossian's, as he also plays concertos by Vivaldi, Locatelli and Tartini, but omits anything by Veracini. He opens with two concertos by Vivaldi, which date from the same time as the Grosso Mogul concerto. In both cases we know for whom it was written. The Concerto in D (RV 205) has the addition fatto per Maestro Pisendel. Johann Georg Pisendel was part of the retinue of the Saxon electoral prince Friedrich August on his third sojourn in Italy in 1716/17. At the time he was first violinist in the orchestra and deputy of the concertmaster Jean Baptiste Volumier. Friedrich August spent some time in Venice which offered Pisendel the opportunity to look around and meet musicians of name and fame. Among them were Tomaso Albinoni and Antonio Vivaldi, who offered him some of their sonatas. The Concerto in D (RV 213a) was written per Signora Anna Maria, who was a violinist in the orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, and was known as Anna Maria dal Violin. She left a part-book including 31 concertos, among them many by Vivaldi; it is especially interesting for the written-out ornaments by Anna Maria or by Vivaldi himself. Whether this concerto is part of it is not mentioned in the liner-notes, again written by Olivier Fourès. It has been preserved incomplete, and reconstructed by him. The third movement is different from that of RV 213.

The performance and the liner-notes raise some questions. First, Fourès writes: "Each of them [Pisendel and Anna Maria] played each concerto in different versions (Anna Maria's asymmetry, contrasts and theatricality, as against Pisendel's broadness, his balance and use of ostinato motifs), and their resulting variants, sketches and 'cadenzas' give us the full measure of the interpretative flexibility of which the Vivaldi concerto was capable." I wonder what exactly is played here: the versions the two original performers played or another one? Second, the track-list says that in RV 205 the cadenza is from the "Violin Concerto in D major, RV 772". However, the Ryom catalogue of his works does not mention such a concerto. RV 772 is rather listed as a cello concerto. Is it 227 or something else? And why was it decided to use this cadenza? The statement by Fourès suggests that we know what Pisendel played. Then why was his version not used?

Tartini is represented with the Concerto in E (D 48). It has the addition "Rondinella vaga e bella", part of the poetical lines added to the second movement. The first movement also has a literary reference. It illustrates what has been written above about his being inspired by literature. He emphasized that the literal quotations should not be considered as something that he was trying to illustrate. Therefore their exact meaning and the connection between them and the music is not of any relevance for the performers. However, it says a lot about Tartini's approach to music. He was a representative of a new style, in which 'naturalness' was an important element. One could compare him with Gluck in his approach to opera. The fact that Vivaldi's concertos are followed immediately by Tartini's makes the contrast all the more evident.

The last work in a set of sonatas or concertos was often something special. A collection of sonatas could close, for instance, with variations on a theme, such as La Folia. The set of twelve violin concertos by Locatelli ends with the longest concerto of the entire collection, taking more than 25 minutes, which is exceptional in the baroque era. That is partly due to the inclusion of the two capricci, and especially the one in the third movement, which again is the longest of them all. It is the challenge to the performer to lift them above the level of a purely technical tour de force. Bojan Čičić succeeds with flying colours. The capricci are fully integrated in the concerto in a completely natural manner.

That is telling for the general level of these performances. Čičić is a highly gifted and stylish performer, who uses his technique in the interest of a communication of what the music wants to express. In contrast to the Venetian Baroque Orchestra, the Illyria Consort plays with one instrument per part. Both approaches are legitimate, as the line-up at the time undoubtedly varied according to the occasion and the venue. It makes these performances somewhat more intimate than those of Siranossian and Marcon. Due to the difference in programme they are not competitive, but rather complementary.

Every lover of the baroque violin will enjoy these two excellent recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Bojan Čičić
Chouchane Siranossian
The Illyria Consort
Venice Baroque Orchestra

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