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"Fire Beneath my Fingers"

Musica Pacifica
rec: Jan 2006, Ayrshire Ball Room
Dorian - DSL90704 (© 2008) (65'50")

Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in F; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in A (D 91); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in B flat (RV 503); Concerto for recorder, violin, bassoon and bc in g minor (RV 106); Concerto for recorder, 2 violins and bc in F 'La Tempesta di Mare' (after RV 98/570); Sonata for recorder, bassoon and bc in a minor (RV 86)

Judith Linsenberg, recorder; Elizabeth Blumenstock, Robert Mealy, Claire Jolivet, violin; Peter Bucknell, viola; William Skeen, cello; Michael McCraw, bassoon; Josh Lee, double bass; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo, archlute, guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord, organ

Nowhere in the booklet the title of this disc is explained. What is does say, however, is what has been the reasoning behind the programme played on this disc, which contain pieces strongly different in character and scoring. The programme notes begin with the heading "Performers as composers". It is underlined that the composers represented here were first and foremost known as performers. From this one may conclude that most of the concertos they have composed are reflecting their own capabilities as performers.

This is certainly true in the case of Giuseppe Tartini, who was an internationally renowned violinist and much sought-after teacher of the violin. It is also true in regard to Sammartini, who worked in London in the last stage of his life. When he died in 1750 the press wrote that he had been "the finest performer on the hautboy in Europe". As in those days oboists usually also played the recorder, the concerto recorded here was very likely written for his own use.

As far as Vivaldi is concerned things look a bit different. The two instruments which play the main role in his compositions on this disc are the recorder and the bassoon. As far as we know he played neither of them himself, and from this perspective they are a bit out of step with the concept of the programme. In this case we have to look somewhere else to find the performers. Vivaldi himself was a virtuosic violinist, and most of his violin concertos will have been written for himself to play. Other concertos were written for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was working as maestro di violini since 1703 and maestro de' concerti since 1709. Vivaldi must have had a thorough knowledge of the technical features of the instruments he was writing for as well as the capabilities of the girls of the Ospedale. Their fame spread throughout Europe and writers like Charles Burney and Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn't miss the opportunity to hear them sing and play. The French magistrate and scholar Charles de Brosses (1709 - 1777) wrote in 1739 that "they sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, the bassoon: in short, there is no instrument so large that it makes them afraid of it". The concertos on this disc therefore reflect the girls' virtuosity rather than Vivaldi's.

Two of the concertos by Vivaldi (the Concerto in F and the Concerto in g minor) are not exactly played as they were written down. As Vivaldi's concertos are "records of performances sooner than they are finished 'compositions'", as Kate van Orden writes in the booklet, the performers believe "it is not inappropriate to alter them for a new occasion and a new set of performers". This issue will always be a matter of debate. On the one hand, one shouldn't be too afraid to treat the score with a certain amount of freedom. The idea of an Urtext was not part of the approach of the baroque era to a score. On the other hand, this doesn't mean performers can do what they like. What is the freedom of the composer/performer isn't necessarily the freedom of today's interpreters, in particular as there is much distance in time between then and now. Therefore I am a bit sceptical about the way the first item is treated here, which "relies on materials drawn from three different extant versions of the piece".

But this is the only questionable aspect of this recording. The concertos by Vivaldi are very fine pieces and are given splendid performances by the ensemble. The Concerto in F is played in a dramatic fashion, with strong dynamic accents. In the Sonata in a minor the trills in the recorder part are very nicely played, beginning slowly and then speeding up. It is a shame the tone of the recorder is slightly unstable on long notes, but it has hardly really bothered me. The second movement is played at high speed, but the articulation is nevertheless very sharp. The largo cantabile of this sonata is particularly beautiful, with a slow-moving recorder part over a very busy and virtuosic bassoon part.

Tartini has written more than a hundred violin concertos. The Italian ensemble L'Arte dell'Arco (Dynamic) is recording them all, but unfortunately these recordings hardly do them justice, and are often marred by insecure intonation. Therefore every recording of these brilliant concertos is very welcome, particularly when performed at such a high level as here by Elizabeth Blumenstock. The first movement is very virtuosic and played with technical assurance and panache by Ms Blumenstock. There are some sharp dynamic contrasts, and the slowing down in some passages increases the dramatic tension. The ensemble dares to play the adagio really slowly, which reveals the strong expressive nature of this movement.

Sammartini's recorder concerto has been recorded a number of times before, but here it receives a very good interpretation. The first movement is played with fire and in the slow movement Judith Linsenberg plays some beautiful ornaments and a virtuosic cadenza towards the end. In the bassoon concerto Michael McCraw gets and takes the opportunity to display the qualities of his instrument as well as his own capabilities as a performer.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this disc. It contains first-rate music in very theatrical and technically brilliant performances. Every reason to strongly recommend it.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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