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"Maestro Corelli's Violins"

Collegium Musicum 90
Dir: Simon Standage

rec: August 19 - 22, 2016, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Chandos - CHAN 0818 ( 2017) (68'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antonio MONTANARI (1676-1737): Concerto in d minor, op. 1,2; Concerto in E flat, op. 1,6; Concerto in E, op. 1,7; Giovanni MOSSI (c1680-1742): Concerto in e minor, op. 4,11; Concerto in g minor, op. 4,12; Giuseppe VALENTINI (1681-1753): Concerto in a minor, op. 7,11

Sources: Giuseppe Valentini, Concerti grossi op. 7, 1710; Giovanni Mossi, Concerti op. 4, 1727; Antonio Montanari, Concerti, op. 1, c1730

Simon Standage, Miles Golding, Catherine Martin, Persephone Gibbs, Miki Takahashi, Ellen O'Dell, Ellen Bundy, Fiona Duncan Wilson, violin; Emma Alter, viola; Andrew Skidmore, cello; Peter McCarthy, violone grosso; Elizabeth Kenny, archlute; Nicholas Parle, harpsichord

During the 17th and 18th centuries Rome was one of the centres of music in Italy. However, whereas in cities like Venice and Naples opera was one of the main genres of music, the musical climate in Rome did not really favour opera, due to the rather megative attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities. In particular Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700) tried to suppress opera performances and carnival entertainments. As a result operas and other secular music were mainly performed in the palaces of aristocrats, who often had their own orchestras and acted as patrons to performers and composers.

We may assume that in this climate instrumental music could particularly flourish. The name of Arcangelo Corelli is especially connected to this part of musical life in Rome. He was the dominating figure, whose patrons, first Cardinal Pamphili and then Cardinal Ottoboni, were among the main maecenases in the city. A major event in 1708 was the performance of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione in the palace of another maecenas, Marquis Ruspoli. It was not surprising that the orchestra was led by Corelli. Among the members of the orchestra were also the composers who figure on the present disc: Antonio Montanari (who acted as co-leader), Giovanni Mossi and Giuseppe Valentini.

Obviously the presence of such a famous master as Corelli attracted many pupils, but although it has been suggested that at least Montanari was one of them, there is no firm evidence of that. Even so, Corelli must have been a strong influence on their development as players and composers.

Montanari had close ties to Cardinal Ottoboni; between 1700 and 1715 he was a salaried member of his household but also performed at special functions organized by the Cardinal throughout his career. From 1705 to 1708 he was also in the service of Cardinal Pamphili. When Corelli died in 1713 Montanari succeeded him as leader of the body of strings which was responsible for the main orchestral performances in Rome. This tells us much about his reputation. So does the fact that the renowned German violinist Johann Georg Pisendel took lessons from Montanari; some of his compositions were in Pisendel's baggage when he returned to Dresden. His extant oeuvre is rather small. A handful of sonatas and a few concertos have been preserved in manuscript. Around 1726 a set of six sonatas for violin, cello and bc was published in Amsterdam, but Montanari's authorship is doubtful. That is different with the set of eight concertos which the Amsterdam printer Le Cne published as his Op. 1. However, Montanari himself had nothing to do with that edition; the publisher had put together concertos he had collected from various sources. They are published in seven partbooks: two solo violins, cello, and ripieno parts for two violins, viola and basso continuo. The concertos show quite some individual characteristics. In the Concerto in E flat, op. 1,6 the first violin plays an extended role. The opening movement is divided into five contrasting sections. The Concerto in E, op. 1,7 opens with a solo for the violin. The Concerto in d minor, op. 1,2 is very different: it is the shortest of the three (5'13" vs 13'44" and 9'31" respectively) and also the most traditional, looking back to the style of Torelli, as Richard Maunder observes in his liner-notes.

Not that much is known about Montanari, and that also goes for Giovanni Mossi, who was probably born in Rome, because the frontispieces of his first five collections refer to him as Roman. Apparently he was from a musical family as his father and a brother played the viola. He started his career as a player at the courts of members of the high echelons of Roman society. The collections of his compositions were published between 1716 and 1733, all of them in Amsterdam. Three include sonatas for violin and bc, the three remaining editions are devoted to concertos. The twelve concertos op. 4 came from the press in 1727, and, like Montanari's Op. 1 concertos, are different in character and scoring. The Concerto in e minor is notable for the fact that it is in three rather than four movements: fast - slow - fast, apparently modelled after the Vivaldian concerto. However, it is no solo concerto, but a traditional concerto grosso with two violins and a cello as the concertino instruments. Notable is the omission of a viola part. That is also the case in the Concerto in g minor, in which the concertino comprises four violins and a cello; the ripieno is made up of four further violins, a double bass and bc. This results in episodes in up to nine parts, which is a strong challenge to the contrapuntal skills of the composer.

The programme opens with another piece with four violin parts. Its composer is Giuseppe Valentini, who was from Florence. His first presence in Rome is documented for 1692, when at the age of only 11, he was a member of the Congregazione di S Cecilia. Between 1692 and 1697 he studied with Giovanni Bononcini. From 1708 onwards his name regularly appears in lists of musicians playing for the main patrons of the time, mentioned above. His compositional output includes vocal works, both sacred and secular, most of which have been lost. It also comprises seven collections of instrumental music, all but two published in Rome between 1701 and 1714. In 1710 a set of twelve concertos was printed in Bologna as his Op. 7. The concertino comprises two or four violins, viola and cello; the ripieno two violins and bc. However, in the Concerto in a minor the four violins take both roles: there are no additional parts for ripieno violins, unlike in Mossi's Concerto in g minor. The second movement is a fugue in six parts; the adagio includes chromaticism, and the closing allegro assai has the form of a gigue and has some remarkable modulations.

Only a small part of what was written in Rome in the early decades of the 18th century is known. This disc sheds light on three composer who are not exactly household names. However, only one of the six pieces played here seems to be new to the catalogue. ArkivMusic lists no fewer than six previous recordings of Valentini's Concerto in a minor, whereas six concertos from his Op. 7 are not available on disc as yet. Both of Mossi's concertos are also available in other recordings, but none of the other concertos from his Op. 4. Only a couple of years ago Johannes Pramsohler and his Ensemble Diderot recorded five concertos from Montanari's Op. 1; only his Concerto in d minor is new to the catalogue. This is a bit sad; an opportunity has been missed to substantially expand the catalogue of the Roman repertoire of string concertos. That would be less of a problem, if the performances by Collegium Musicum 90 were better or at least equally good as those already available. Going by the recordings I have heard that is not the case. Montanari's concertos are far better served by the Ensemble Diderot, and the concerto by Valentini and Mossi's Concerto in g minor receive much better performances from Musica antiqua Kln (Archiv, 1992). Stylistically these two groups are comparable: strong contrasts in tempo and dynamics, and a wide colour palette in the solos. In comparison Collegium Musicum 90 is too restrained, and often outright bland. On several occasions I found it hard to keep my concentration, not due to a lack of quality of the music, but because of the rather uninteresting performances.

Some British ensembles have learnt from what has happened elsewhere, especially in Italy, but unfortunately Collegium Musicum 90 is not one of them. This is the way English musicians played Italian music in the 1980s and 1990s. I find it hard to swallow, especially as there are plenty of recordings which show how to perform this kind of music. If you are interested in these concertos, you should look for the recordings I mentioned above.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

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