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CD reviews

"Concerti di Venezia"

Jan Vogler, cello; Giuliano Carmignola, violina
La Folia Barockorchester
Dir: Robin Peter Müller

rec: May 1 - 5, 2014, Dresden, Palais im Großen Garten
Sony - 88843090012 (© 2014) (68'34")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Concerto for cello, 2 violins and bc in d minor; Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747): Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in d minor (adagio); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in G; Polifemo, opera (Alto giove, aria); Antonio VANDINI (1690-1778): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in D; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in b minor (RV 424); Concerto for violin, cello, strings and bc in B flat (RV 547)a; Farnace, opera (RV 711) (Gelido in ogni vena)

Robin Peter Müller, Heinrich Kubitschek, Pia Grutschus, Filip Marius, violin; Sibille Klepper, viola; Gerd Fischer-Baudys, cello; Sophia Scheifler, violone; Vanessa Heinisch, archlute, chitarrone; Olga Watts, harpsichord

Once upon a time players of period instruments and those who loved the results of their efforts had to defend what was called the 'authentic performance practice'. Today that debate is something of the past; the virtues of 'historical performance practice' as it is mostly labelled now, are hardly questioned anymore. It is even hard to find recordings of baroque repertoire which are explicitly 'non-authentic'. A growing number of performers who play 'modern' instruments - often old instruments which were later modernized - try to include the insights of historical performance practice in pre-romantic repertoire in their own interpretations.

Success creates a bandwagon effect. Some musicians from the 'traditional school' are seriously interested in a way of performing which leads to convincing results and appeals to such large audiences. They are willing to learn and don't consider themselves too important to ask experienced performers for advice. Some are going so far that they start to play early instruments with the technique these require. However, there are also some performers who think that it is enough to just adapt their own instruments a bit. They even perform with period instrument ensembles without playing such an instrument themselves. The present disc is an example: Jan Vogler has few credentials in the performance of pre-romantic repertoire. La Folia Barockorchester is a period instrument group, and the instruments its members play are specified in the booklet. It is probably telling that Vogler's cello is not specified. Listening to this disc I was pretty sure that he plays a 'modern' cello, and a search on the internet reveals this his instrument is a Stradivarius which has been modernized.

I have reviewed several discs of this kind - for instance by the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the violinist Viktoria Mullova - and these could not convince me that this approach has any real value. The results are mostly unsatisfying. In his liner-notes Vogler talks about the use of gut strings but that alone doesn't make his instrument a baroque cello. He also uses a baroque bow, and that certainly helps as it is an essential tool. Even so, it has only limited effect when the cello is basically a modern instrument. It is probably due to the difference between this 'modern' cello and the period strings of the orchestra that the cello is mostly too loud and too dominant. The concertos by Porpora and Vandini are moving towards the classical period and here the solo instrument has more prominence than in the baroque concertos, but even so I believe that the balance between the solo part and the tutti is not ideal. In the baroque era a solo instrument is largely primus inter pares and should be more part of the ensemble than it is here. That goes in particular for Caldara's Concerto in d minor which ranks among the genre of the concerto da camera. Vogler's statement that this concerto "is the ideal work to trace the cello's transition from a continuo instrument to a prima donna" attests to his basic misunderstanding of the genre.

The oddest pieces are the opera arias by Porpora and Vivaldi. It is also part of historical performance practice to present historical evidence that opera arias were performed instrumentally. The same goes for the andante from Alessandro Marcello's famous Concerto in d minor for oboe. "There can have been few cellists in Venice who were not tempted to try out this mournful melody by Alessandro Marcello on their instrument", Vogler writes. But that is an unsubstantiated assumption. Moreover, is this melody mournful? Not if we believe that Johann Mattheson's description of the key of d minor has a universal character and isn't confined to Germany. He describes it as "sub­mis­sive, calm, some­thing grand, pleas­ant and ma­jes­tic, com­pla­cent".

However, it is especially the interpretation which is highly unsatisfying. Vogler mostly plays legato, there is hardly any differentiation between good and bad notes as they usually receive the same weight. His performances don't speak as was expected from instruments in the baroque era. Even more astonishing is the lack of ornamentation: the andante from Marcello's oboe concerto is played just as it is written. But especially slow movements invite adding ornamentation - that was expected from any performer in the 18th century. The same is the case in the two opera arias. I can't remember having heard La Folia Barockorchester before but I hope they usually play better than here. This disc is not exactly a model of stylish playing. I don't understand why the strings have to produce such an ugly sound in Vivaldi's aria.

This is a very disappointing production. That is especially regrettable as the programme includes some pieces which are seldom played, such as the concertos by Caldara and Vandini. It proves once again that the best interpretations are those which are based on stylistic consistency. A mixture of elements from two different worlds never works.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Jan Vogler
La Folia Barockorchester

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