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"Per la Notte di Natale - Italian Christmas Concertos"

Concerto Copenhagen
Dir: Lars-Ulrik Mortensen

rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2020, Copenhagen, Garrison Kirke
Naxos - 8.574264 (© 2020) (48'17")
Liner-notes: E/DK
Cover, track-list & booklet

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,8 'fatto per la Notte di Natale'; Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Concerto grosso in f minor, op. 1,8 'Per il Santo Natale'; Francesco Onofrio MANFREDINI (1684-1762): Concerto grosso in C, op. 3,12 'Per il Santissimo Natale'; Giuseppe TORELLI (1658-1709): Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 8,6 'Concerto in forma di Pastorale per il Santissimo Natale'; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E 'Il riposo'/'Per il Santissimo Natale' (RV 270)a

Sources: Giuseppe Torelli, Concerti grossi con una pastorale per il SS Natale, op. 8, 1709; Arcangelo Corelli, Concerti grossi con duoi violini e violoncello di concertino obligato e duoi altri violini, viola e basso di concerto grosso ad arbitrio, che si potranno radoppiare, op. 8, 1714; Francesco Onofrio Manfredini, Concerti a due violini, e basso continuo obligati, e due altri violini, viola, e basso di rinforzo ad arbitrio, op. 3, 1718; Pietro Antonio Locatelli, XII Concerti grossi a quattro e a cinque, op. 1, 1721

Fredrik From (soloa), Peter Spissky, Hannah Tibell, Alison Luthmers, Antina Hugosson, Tinne Albrectsen, Stefanie Barner-Madsen, Kanerva Juutilainen, violin; Gabriel Bania, Jesenka Balic Zunic, viola; Judith-Maria Blomsterberg, Hanna Loftsdóttir, cello; Megan Adie, double bass; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord

Since the Middle Ages Christmas has been one of the main feasts of the year. This explains the large musical repertoire, from simple carols to large-scale oratorios. In Italy it became a tradition to compose music for Christmas eve, the night before the first day of Christmas. This could be either instrumental or vocal music; an example of the latter category is Alessandro Scarlatti's O di Betlemme altera, a Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo. It is one of Scarlatti's best-known vocal works. The present disc sheds light on the probably better-known genre of the Christmas concerto.

In his set of twelve Concerti grossi op. 6 Arcangelo Corelli included a concerto explicitly intended per la notte di Natale. It is his most famous work, which is available in numerous recordings, and was already popular long before the emergence of historical performance practice. The most obvious feature of 'Christmas concertos' is the pastoral character of one or several movements. It is notable - but hardly ever mentioned in liner-notes - that in Corelli's concerto the section called 'pastorale', with the tempo indication 'largo', has the addition ad libitum. This means that this concerto can be played outside the Christmas period by omitting the 'pastorale' section and closing the work with the allegro which opens the last movement. The same is the case with the Concerto grosso in f minor by Locatelli. Here the 'Christmas concerto' is also the eighth work of the set, and, like Corelli's concerto, it ends with a movement, called pastorale ad libitum, with the tempo indication 'largo - andante'. If it is omitted the concerto ends with an andante. Considering that this was not meant as a slow movement, but indicated a moderate tempo, that seems completely natural. Whereas Corelli's concerto refers to Christmas eve in its title, Locatelli's concerto apparently does not. That is to say: I could only have a look at the part of the first violin, where there is no reference to Il Santo Natale, as added to the title of the concerto in the track-list.

The name of Vivaldi does not turn up often in performances and recordings of Christmas concertos. However, some include his Concerto in E (RV 270) for violin, strings and basso continuo, as is the case here. This work raises several questions. Karl Aage Rasmussen, in his liner-notes, mentions that it is considered a relatively late work. In the composer's manuscript, it bears two titles: per il S.S. Natale and Il Riposo. The latter title means "rest" and it has given scholars the idea that originally it may have been conceived as part of a trilogy, the other concertos bearing the titles of Il Sospetto (suspicion) and L'inquietudine (unrest). Rasmussen suggests that these titles could be connected to Christmas as well. "If (...) the titles are considered to be one totality, the music of course depicts the infant Jesus sleeping peacefully in his manger." Whether he is right or not, it is a nice work, but not very 'Christmassy', in comparison to the other concertos on this disc.

Giuseppe Torelli worked most of his life in Bologna and not only contributed to the development of the concerto grosso but also the repertoire for trumpet and strings. His Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 8,6, probably the least-known piece in the programme, is in just three movements, with the pastorale - like Corelli's with the character indication of 'largo' - in the middle. Torelli was one of the teachers of Francesco Onofrio Manfredini, a composer of Vivaldi's generation, and - like so many others - overshadowed by him in our time. Four collections of his music were printed, but today he is almost exclusively known for his 'Christmas concerto', included in a set of twelve concerti grossi, printed as his Op. 3. Like Torelli's concerto, the Concerto in C is in three movements, and here the pastorale - again a 'largo' - is the opening movement.

Christmas concertos by Italian composers are quite popular and are frequently played and recorded. Even before the time of historical performance practice, chamber orchestras, like I Musici, often performed such pieces. From that perspective, it is a bit disappointing that the programme is not more adventurous. There are more concertos which are connected to Christmas, than what is on offer here. The short playing time does not help to entice music lovers to purchase it, as there is a good chance they have these pieces in their collection in one or several recordings. Fortunately, there is nothing disappointing about the performances. Concerto Copenhagen is a very fine ensemble which approaches this repertoire from a rather intimate angle. With eight violins, two violas and two cellos, it is not that small, but it is able to produce a refined sound and often movements are performed with great subtlety. I need to specifically mention the first violinist, Fredrik From, who also plays the solo part in Vivaldi's concerto, and does so with great distinction, sometimes at an almost whispering volume. This fits the concerto's title rather well. Overall, there is some exquisite dynamic shading, and - for instance in Corelli - I noted some marked dynamic accents.

As far as the repertoire is concerned, this disc has nothing new to offer. However, the quality of the performances more than compensates for the lack of adventure and the short playing time.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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