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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653 - 1713): Concerti grossi op. 6

The Avison Ensemble
Dir: Pavlo Beznosiuk

rec: July 25 - 30, 2011, London, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town
Linn Records - CKD 411 (2 CDs) ( 2012) (2.09'40")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,1; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,2; Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,3; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,4; Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 6,5a; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,6; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,7; Concerto grosso 'fatto per la notte di Natale' in g minor, op. 6,8; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,9; Concerto grosso in C, op. 6,10a; Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 6,11; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,12

[concertino] Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding, violin; Andrew Skidmorea, Richard Tunnicliffe, cello; Paula Chateauneuf, archlute; Roger Hamilton, harpsichord, organ
[ripieno] Joanne Green, Bojan Cicic, Hilary Michael, Katarina Bengtson, Sarah Bealby-Wright, Ewa Chmielewska-Zorzano, violin; Rachel Byrt, Thomas Kirby, viola; Aoife Nic Athlaoich, cello; Tim Amherst, violone

If one asks a lover of classical music who his favourite composers are few will volunteer the name of Corelli. Although he is generally acknowledged as one of the most influential composers in musical history, and according to eye-witness accounts one of the greatest violinists in history, his music is not universally appreciated and some even consider it boring and overrated. When in the 1990s Italian musicians started to play on period instruments they concentrated on Vivaldi's music rather than Corelli's.

His oeuvre isn't very large: just six collections of music were published, the last - the Concerti grossi Op. 6 - after his death. But his music was reprinted frequently until the end of the 18th century. It is for sure that he wrote more than was printed. There are a number of sonatas without opus number, and we also know that he composed sinfonias which were used as overtures to oratorios by other composers of his time. These seem all to have been lost, except one. It is quite possible, though, that some of them have been included in the concerti grossi, probably reworked.

Corelli was once considered the inventor of the concerto grosso, but that is contradicted by the facts. No composer can claim to be the inventor of the genre. In fact it came into existence at several places in Italy in the last three decades of the 17th century. The principle of the concerto grosso - the contrast between a small group of instruments, the concertino, and the ripieno, the full orchestra - was the answer to the habit of performing music with large orchestras, sometimes consisting of more than 100 instruments. Ensembles of that size obviously lacked flexibility, and a way to compensate was for a small group of instruments to be set apart, the concertino.

The set of twelve concerti grossi Opus 6 was published in 1713 by Estienne Roger in Amsterdam. It is very likely though that the concertos were composed some decades earlier. We know that Georg Muffat saw and heard Corelli direct performances of his concerti grossi in Rome in 1681-82. During the last years of his life Corelli was reworking the concertos and preparing them for publication.

The set is divided into two parts: the first consists of eight concerti da chiesa, the second of four concerti da camera. These titles do not refer to the place where they were performed. These works were certainly played in church, but probably more often in concert halls or in the open air. The titles indicate in what form they are written: the concerti da chiesa after the sonata da chiesa, consisting of a sequence of slow and fast movements. The sonata da camera contains a sequence of dances, usually preceded by a prelude, and so do the concerti da camera in this set.

In his performances in Rome Corelli also made use of pretty large ensembles, larger than those used in most modern performances. It seems that between thirty and forty musicians were involved in performances under Corelli's direction in the palaces of the Cardinals Pamphili and Ottoboni. On the other hand, it was also possible to perform concerti grossi with the concertino only - a practice Georg Muffat mentioned in the foreword of his Ausserlesene Instrumental-Music of 1701. In that case the parts for the concertino were to be played piano to create a contrast with the ripieno sections. The Avison Ensemble consists here of eight violins, two violas and two cellos.

In the basso continuo either a harpsichord or an organ is used, alongside an archlute. From the sources and the witness accounts of Georg Muffat one may conclude that a theorbo was always involved in the realisation of the basso continuo part, the harpsichord much less. The involvement of the organ is unsure, whereas Muffat also mentions the harp. It seems to me the choice made here is perfectly defensible. What I particularly like is that no distinction is made between the concerti da chiesa and the concerti da camera. There is no reason to use only an organ in the former and only a harpsichord in the latter.

The performances are alright, but I don't rank them among the very best. That is partly a matter of taste: I just don't like the sound of the strings that much, which I find often too thin and lacking warmth. Sometimes the rhythm doesn't come off that well. That has much to do with an insufficient differentation between good and bad notes. In general the dance rhythms in the concerti da camera are better realised than the rhythms in the concerti da chiesa. The closing allegro from the Concerto grosso No. 2 in F is an example of rather awkward playing. On the other hand, in the first allegro from the Concerto grosso No. 3 in c minor the rhythmic pulse comes off well. Dynamically I also find some movements too flat.

I am generally satisfied about the tempi, but there is reason to believe that Corelli's own performances showed larger contrasts in tempi between slow and fast movements. The recording of the Ensemble 415, directed by Chiara Banchini (Harmonia Mundi), probably comes closer to his own tempi. Banchini takes in particular more time in the slower movements, but that could also be the result of playing with a much larger ensemble. Her interpretation has been my favourite since it was released, and this new recording doesn't change that.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

The Avison Ensemble

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