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Vivaldi: "Concerti"

Maurice Steger, recorders
I Barocchisti
Dir.: Diego fasolis

rec: April & June, 2000, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo
Claves - CD 50-2010 (78'38")

Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in G (RV 438) c; Concerti for transverse flute, strings and bc in D, op. 10,3 'Il Gardellino' (RV 428) a ; in F, op. 10,5 (RV 434) b; in G, op. 10,6 (RV 437) b ; Concerti for strings and bc in a minor (RV 127); in g (RV 155)

Maurice Steger, flautino a, alto recorder b, tenor recorder c; Duilio Galfetti, violin, mandolin; Fiorenza De Donatis, Stefano Barneschi, Marco Bianchi, Marinella Cassarino, Denise Gruber, Alberto Stevanin, Davide Amodio, violin; Marco De Giacomo, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Vanni Moretto, double bass; Alberto Grazzi, bassoon; Eduardo Eguez, Maurizio Piantelli, theorbo; Francesco Cera, harpsichord, organ; Diego Fasolis, organ

Vivaldi lived in a time that saw the gradual decline of the recorder in favour of the transverse flute. It is thought that Vivaldi's meeting with the German composer and flute virtuoso Johann Joachim Quantz in 1726 was the main stimulus for him to write for the transverse flute. That resulted in the publication of his opus 10, around 1728 in Amsterdam, containing six concertos for transverse flute, first and second violin, viola and basso continuo. Five of these concertos had already been composed in Venice, in the first decade of the century. One difference between the two versions is the instrumentation: most of the early versions contain parts for oboe and bassoon. One could say that the adaptations - perhaps by Vivaldi, perhaps by someone else - are more 'conventional', and therefore more suited to general use all over Europe. If someone would like to play these concertos on the recorder, one would expect him to use the early versions: the concertos 5 and 6 are specifically scored for flauto, meaning the recorder. But in this recording the opus 10 versions are played on the recorder, which is dubious. In particular in the third concerto of this set, with the description Il gardellino ('the goldfinch'), the use of the recorder is debatable. Even the early version (RV 90) is scored for 'flauto trav', the transverse flute.
Another feature of this recording is the use of a relatively large orchestra of eleven strings. Karsten Erik Ose, in his programme notes, states that Vivaldi's orchestra was famous for its use of dynamic effects. "Such dynamic effects are much more effective with an expanded string section than in smaller formations." That may be true, but should that practice be applied to all concertos? As the opus 10 concertos were intended for the European market, why should they be played the Venetian way? Apart from that the general view is that - as Christopher Hogwood, in the programme notes to his recording of opus 10 writes - "Vivaldi expected the same balance of forces as in the original with three equal soprano parts". That implies a performance with one instrument per part.

The first work on this CD is the most problematic. In particular here the equality of the three soprano parts is important, since not only the flute, but also the two violins are imitating birdsongs. But the bird motifs played by the violins are overpowered by the penetrating sound of the flautino. Karsten Erik Ose writes that "the use of a high recorder is in itself programmatic, for what other instrument is predestined to imitate bird song?" I'm sorry, but this is complete rubbish. Has he never heard one of Handel's most famous arias, 'Sweet bird', from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato? It is hard to find a more effective imitation of bird singing than Handel has written here for the transverse flute.
Another matter is the use of ornamentation. I think generosity in this regard is stylistically correct, but here it is overdone. One may assume that Vivaldi knew what he was doing when he composed the solo part as an imitation of bird singing. In this case the player should stick to what the composer has written down.

Certainly the orchestra has a 'Latin flavour'. Although based in Lugano in Switzerland it shares many of the features of Italian baroque orchestras, like extreme tempi and the general virtuosity of the string playing. Often that works very well. But sometimes, as here, it is counterproductive; all elegance goes out of the window because of the aggressive sound of the strings.
Of the three concertos from opus 10, the fifth is played reasonably well. The aggressive sound is literally 'muted' here, since it has to be played with sordino. But the 6th Concerto again suffers from the general rudeness of the orchestral playing.
Fortunately, the rest of the CD is a lot better. The string concertos are very well played. The leader, Duilio Galfetti, uses the opportunity to add some graceful ornamentation to the solo passages in RV 155.
The early concerto RV 108 is also done quite nicely, with rhythmic vitality in the fast movements, and much grace and expression in the largo in the middle. But even here there is something to criticise: why on earth is a mandolin used as basso continuo instrument?
Vivaldi's flute concertos belong to his most popular works, and there are many good recordings available. This one certainly offers a different kind of interpretation, but is only partially convincing. 'Different' doesn’t necessarily imply 'better'.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:
Antonio Vivaldi
Maurice Steger
I Barocchisti

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