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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Complete Cello Concertos"

Francesco Galligioni, cello
L'Arte dell'Arco
Dir: Federico Guglielmo

rec: Jan - May 2014, Padua, Abbazia di S. Maria di Carceri
Brilliant Classics - 95082 (4 CDs) (© 2015) (3.53'55")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto in C (RV 398); Concerto in C (RV 399); Concerto in C (RV 400); Concerto in c minor (RV 401); Concerto in c minor (RV 402); Concerto in D (RV 403); Concerto in D (RV 404); Concerto in d minor (RV 405); Concerto in d minor (RV 406); Concerto in d minor (RV 407); Concerto in E flat (RV 408); Concerto in e minor (RV 409); Concerto in F (RV 410); Concerto in F (RV 411); Concerto in F (RV 412); Concerto in G (RV 413); Concerto in G (RV 414); Concerto in G (RV 415); Concerto in g minor (RV 416); Concerto in g minor (RV 417); Concerto in a minor (RV 418); Concerto in a minor (RV 419); Concerto in a minor (RV 420); Concerto in a minor (RV 421); Concerto in a minor (RV 422) Concerto in B flat (RV 423); Concerto in b minor (RV 424)

Federico Guglielmo, Gianpiero Zanocco, Francesca Bonomo, violin; Simone Laghi, viola; Alberto Guerra, bassoon; Giuseppe Barutti, Federico Toffano, cello; Paolo Zuccheri, 8-foot violone; Alessandro Pivelli, Mauro Zavagno, double bass; Ivano Zanenghi, theorbo; Diego Cantalupi, theorbo, guitar; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord, organ; Giammichele Constantin, organ

In comparison to the violin the cello was a relatively new instrument when Vivaldi composed his sonatas and concertos for it. Although string basses were used as early as the renaissance it was mostly the viola da gamba which was played in an ensemble. Since the early 17th century increasingly virtuosic music was written for various instruments, including the viola da gamba, in particular in England and France. In Italy it was the bass violin which was used alongside the viola da gamba. This instrument was often called violone. The term violoncello dates from the second half of the 17th century. It is assumed this was used for an instrument already known as bass violin or violone but it is still not entirely clear whether it always refers to the same instrument. It was only in the second half of the 17th century that it was used as a solo instrument.

Towards the end of the 17th century it developed into a fashionable instrument and after the turn of the century it was going to disseminate across Europe, gradually overshadowing the viola da gamba, even in France, where the viol was something like the symbol of everything French. The cello's growing popularity explains the large number of cello concertos which Vivaldi created. It is not always clear for whom he composed these concertos. Vivaldi left 27 concertos for cello, strings and bc. Seven of these have been preserved in the library of Prince Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, an avid collector of music and skilled player of the cello. He collected music on his travels as a diplomat but also commissioned concertos and sonatas from the best composers of his time. The cello sonatas which Antonio Caldara composed at the end of his career are the fruit of such a commission. It seems unlikely that the Prince ever met Vivaldi in person; the seven concertos in his collection were the result of activities from people in his circle.
Other concertos were probably written for girls from the Ospedale della Pietà. Two concertos which have come down to us incomplete mention the name of Teresa, one of the choirgirls who also played the cello. These concertos are omitted here.

All the concertos follow the same pattern: two fast movements embrace a slower movement. The cello is part of the ensemble, a primus inter pares, which after an introduction - the ritornello - by the whole ensemble makes its appearance in a solo role. The solos in the fast movements are usually technically demanding and often dramatic. In contrast the slow movements include much expression and often have a lyrical character. Some of them have the traces of an opera aria reminding us that Vivaldi was a successful opera composer. The Concerto in e minor (RV 409) is different in scoring and texture. It has an obbligato part for the bassoon, without being a true double concerto. The opening movement is called "adagio - allegro moderato" but these don't follow each other but are rather blended: slow and fast passages alternate. The second movement is an allegro turning into an adagio which then leads to the closing allegro.

One may think that so many concertos of the same scoring and texture can have little variety to offer. But that is far away from the truth. Vivaldi certainly did not compose the same concerto 27 times. I have listened to this complete set in two sessions and I have never been bored. It is remarkable how differently the cello is treated and how many ideas pass by in these pieces. There are many movements which are technically demanding or which include a lot of drama but there are also specimens of supreme lyricism and cantabilità, not only slow movements - such as the adagio from the Concerto in a minor (RV 420) - but also some fast movements, for instance the opening allegro molto from the Concerto in G (RV 414).

The impression this set makes is also due to the performances. Francesco Galligioni is a seasoned performer on the baroque cello and has played with many renowned ensembles and at some of the main early music festivals. He has given various aspects of the interpretation much thought. Notable is the fact that in some concertos he plays the solo part on the five-stringed cello piccolo. "This was not to avoid particularly high positions, but because I felt it better suited a composition requiring a high string. The violoncello piccolo proved to be the best instrument for playing a number of Vivaldi concertos, as it allowed for symmetry in the bariolage passages (...) and easier performance of those passages that call for typically violin-style fingering (...)". As far as the basso continuo is concerned, harpsichord or organ are the core of the basso continuo group, and in many concertos they are joined by one or more instruments. In a number of concertos the cello is joined by a 16-foot violone, in other concertos a viol is used. The fact that one concerto has an obbligato part for the bassoon - mentioned above - inspired Galligioni to include it in the basso continuo group in two other concertos as well.

As is common practice these days plucked instruments also participate, in this case theorbo and guitar. Fortunately they are not played as a kind of percussion instruments too often and indiscriminately as is sometimes the case in Italian music, and especially concertos by Vivaldi. Galligioni and L'Arte dell'Arco also generally avoid the exaggerations which sometimes make the listening to this kind of music a bit tiresome. Only now and then I felt that the performers go a little overboard, for instance in the closing movement from the Concerto in C (RV 398), especially in the realisation of the basso continuo. The tempi are mostly convincing; here and there I found an andante a bit too slow, such as the one from the Concerto in g minor (RV 417) which sounds too much like a adagio.

But these are minor issues in regard to the overall outstanding quality of these performances. This is the first complete recording of Vivaldi's cello concertos to date. In the 1990s Naxos released four discs with the complete cello concertos, played by Raphael Wallfisch and City of London Sinfonia, directed by Nicholas Kraemer. They play modern instruments but in period style and these performances are very respectible. However, a performance on period instruments is always to be preferred, provided it comes from first-class artists, as is the case here. Wallfisch and Kraemer also included concertos in which the cello is joined by other instruments, such as the violin and the bassoon. These are omitted here but are or will be available in other recordings as L'Arte dell'Arco seems in the process of recording Vivaldi's instrumental oeuvre complete for Brilliant Classics.

This is certainly a jewel in their crown.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Francesco Galligioni

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