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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653 - 1713): "Violin Sonatas Op. 5"

Stefano Montanari, violin
Accademia Bizantina
Dir: Ottavio Dantone

rec: April & August 2002, Ravenna (I), Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale
Arts - 47724-8 ( 2005) (2 CDs; 65'33" / 59'23")

Sonata in D, Op. 5,1; Sonata in B flat, Op. 5,2; Sonata in C, Op. 5,3; Sonata in F, Op. 5,4; Sonata in g minor, Op. 5,5; Sonata in A, op. 5,6; Sonata in d minor, Op. 5,7; Sonata in e minor, Op. 5,8; Sonata in A, Op. 5,9; Sonata in F, Op. 5,10; Sonata in E, Op. 5,11; Sonata in d minor, Op. 5,12 'Follia'

Mauro Valli, cello piccolo; Nicola Dal Maso, violone; Tiziano Bagnati, archlute, lute; Ottavio Dantone, harpsichord; Romano Valentini, organ

(Source: 12 Sonate a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo Op. V, 1700)

"Few things seem today as obvious and uncontested in the history of music as the fact that Arcangelo Corelli was, for his contemporaries and successors alike, a 'model' of 'style' and 'classicism': this was affirmed by pupils, repeated by theorists and endorsed by historians and musicologists from Burney to Torchi, from Pincherle to Rinaldi", the Italian musicologist Franco Piperno writes. The number of editions of his works are further evidence of his unique stature in the history of music. His opus 5, for instance, was first published in 1700 and appeared in 42 editions until the end of the 18th century. 'Balance' and 'good taste' are perhaps the most appropriate words to describe Corelli's style.
According to Thomas Twining, son of a tea merchant from London and a great lover of music, Francesco Geminiani once had described his teacher Corelli with these words: "... his merit was no depth of learning like that of Scarlatti nor great fancy, or rich invention either in melody or harmony; but nice ear, & most delicate taste, which led him to select the most pleasing harmonies & melodies, & to construct the parts so as to produce the most delightful effect upon the ear". It is perhaps this ideal of balance and good taste which was the reason he put so much time and effort in the preparation of the printing of his own works. It is probably as a result of this that only five collections were published during his lifetime (the last series, 12 Concerti opus 6, appeared after his death).

It seems this picture of a man most concerned about balance and good taste is rather at odds with eyewitness accounts of his playing. One of these says: "I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man." This tells a lot about the difference between music as it was printed and the way it was actually performed. Even during his life editions of his opus 5 were published with added ornaments for the slow movements. Although there was some controversy about the claims these ornaments being written out by Corelli himself, there can be little doubt that the sonatas in their printed form are mere skeletons of the works as they were played by the composer himself. As was common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries, the addition of ornaments was left to the performer. The interpreters on this disc are well aware of this, and Stefano Montanari is not afraid of adding ornaments in abundance to both slow and fast movements.

The description of Corelli's playing also suggests his works are meant to be expressive. The sonatas for violin and bc opus 5 are ample evidence of that. The very first sonata of the set immediately shows Corelli at his expressive best. It is a sequence of sections with contrasting tempo indications: grave, adagio, grave, allegro, adagio. Because of these striking contrasts this movement can be compared with the Italian keyboard toccata of the 17th century. This sonata and the five that follow belong to the genre of the sonata da chiesa, whose slow movements are mostly lyrical in character, whereas the fast movements are usually very virtuosic and contrapuntal. The second half of the set consists of sonate da camera, although the difference between the two halves isn't as big as one may expect. Some movements in the first half are dances in disguise, whereas some dances in the second half are actually adagios which are no less expressive than the slow movements in the first half. The split of this set into two parts is reflected by the scoring of the basso continuo: the sonate da chiesa are performed with both organ and harpsichord, with additional strings (cello and violone) and lute, whereas in the sonate da camera the basso continuo part is mostly realised by the harpsichord with a string bass only.

The collection ends with a series of variations on the Follia, a chord progression connected to a melodic pattern which dates from the 16th century. It is here where Corelli shows the full picture of his own virtuosity, and here one could well imagine him rolling his eyeballs in agony, as the anonymous observer quoted above wrote. It is getting a splendid performance here, and it brings to an end a recording which is simply brilliant. Stefano Montanari is a most exciting performer, who is playing with warmth and passion and who doesn't hold back in bringing out both the expressive and the virtuosic aspects of Corelli's sonatas, without crossing the border of good taste. He gets excellent support from the members of the Accademia Bizantina. The recording engineer has done a brilliant job as well.

This interpretation is the best I know, and certainly the most dramatic and exciting. I therefore strongly recommend this set, in particular to those who think Corelli's music is a bit boring. If this recording doesn't make them change their mind, nothing will.

Johan van Veen ( 2007)

Relevant links:

Accademia Bizantina


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