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"Mr. Corelli in London - Recorder concertos, La Follia"

Maurice Steger, recordera
The English Concert
Dir: Laurence Cummings

rec: July 2009, London, All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907523 ( 2010) (70'59")

Concerto per flauto No. 4 in Fa; Concerto per flauto No. 7 in d minora; Concerto per flauto No. 8 in e minora; Concerto per flauto No. 10 in Ga; Ground upon the Sarabanda theme of the Sonataa; The Favorite Gogg in Corelli's Solo in g minora; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Concerto grosso after Corelli's La Follia in g minor

The oeuvre of Arcangelo Corelli became very popular throughout Europe from around 1700 onwards. In particular his sonatas for violin and bc opus 5 were seen as models of good taste, simplicity, grandeur and solemnity. The many arrangements for all kinds of instruments testify the high esteem in which Corelli's music was held. Nowhere was Corelli's music more popular than in England, and in his essay in the booklet about 'Professionals and Amateurs in the Cult of Corelli' Erin Helyard refers to the many musical societies throughout the country where Corelli's music was played. "In Aberdeen in 1748 a resolution was made that each evening be 'divided into three Acts, in each of which some of Corelli's music shall be performed'."

Recordings of Corelli's sonatas in arrangements from the first half of the 18th century have been released in the past. Among the best-known are the arrangements in the form of concerti grossi by Francesco Geminiani, who claimed to be Corelli's pupil - which isn't proven - of the sonatas opus 5. Also well-known are anonymous arrangements of the last six sonatas from this opus for recorder and bc. And only recently Stefan Temmingh recorded these same sonatas on recorder with ornaments by various composers of the early 18th century.

This disc is different in that it is a mixture of both forms of arrangement. The starting point are the arrangements by Francesco Geminiani for strings and bc. But the upper part is taken by Maurice Steger, who plays various arrangements and ornamentations by composers like Pietro Castrucci, Christopher Pez and (probably) William Babell. In order to avoid any transposition he uses four different recorders: a fifth flute (soprano recorder in c''), a fourth flute (soprano recorder in b-flat''), a common flute (alto recorder in f') and a voice flute (tenor recorder in d'). In some cases the recorder plays the upper part independently, whereas elsewhere the recorder part is doubled by the strings.

In cases like this I am always curious about ths historical foundation. In his programme notes Maurice Steger writes: "Soon Geminiani's concertos in their turn became orchestral templates for the extravagant virtuosos, who promptly added a solo part in their own versions." This seems plausible, and in line with the freedom 18th-century virtuosos claimed for themselves, but I would have liked to see some evidence to back up this statement.

"Extravagant" seems a wholly appropriate term to describe the authors of some of the variations and ornaments Maurice Steger has chosen. A good example is the gavotta from the Sonata No. 10, played here at the end of the Concerti per flauto No. 10 in F. The version of the solo part played here consists of one variation from the 'California manuscript', followed by a series of breathtaking variations by the French flute virtuoso Michel Blavet. Technically impressive and astonishing, yes, but tasteful? That is not meant as criticism of Maurice Steger - it just shows that music of dubious taste isn't a phenomenon of our time. The ornaments by Castrucci (Concertos 7 and 8) and those which Steger assumes were written by William Babel (Concerto No. 10, minus the gavotta) are also very virtuosic, whereas those by Christoph Pez (Concerto No. 4) are much more discreet.

One of the most famous subjects of variations in the 17th and 18th centuries was 'La Follia'. Corelli's opus 5 ends with a series of variations on La Follia, and Geminiani's arrangement is played here as it was written, without the participation of a recorder. In addition to the four complete sonatas or 'concertos' one single movement from Corelli's Sonata No. 5 is played, the 'gigg', another favourite piece at the time. Here Steger makes use of arrangements by a certain Sigr. Cateni - about whom apparently nothing is known - and by the English recorder player Robert Valentine, who for most part of his life lived and worked in Rome and Naples.

The disc ends with a rather mysterious piece, a ground which is based upon the theme of the sarabande of Corelli's Sonata No. 7. Maurice Steger thinks it could have been written by Johann Mattheson, the German theorist and composer, who was also an admirer of Corelli and has visited London. The ground begins as a piece for recorder and basso continuo, but halfway a solo harpsichord comes in. The treble part was originally written for violin, as are some of the other arrangements. But playing violin music on the recorder was a quite common practice at the time.

This is a very interesting disc which delivers a considerable addition to our knowledge of the popularity and dissemination of Corelli's oeuvre through Europe. The performances are generally excellent, and in particular Maurice Steger is impressive in his performances of the recorder parts. The way he realises the arrangement by Blavet is quite astonishing. The English Concert does well and plays much better than I have heard it play in some previous recordings. Only in the Concerto grosso after Corelli's La Follia the use of dynamics is a little questionable now and then.

The booklet contains programme notes as well as a list of the sources of the music on this disc. The members of the English Concert are listed with a specification of the instruments they play. This deserves much applause. It has to be noted that the titles of the 'concerti' are not historical, but invented for this disc. I don't know about the titles of the other two pieces.

To sum it up: this is an exciting disc, not just for recorder aficionados.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Maurice Steger
The English Concert

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