musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653 - 1713): "6 Concerti Grossi, Op. VI"

Orchestra Barocca di Cremona
Dir: Giovanni Battista Columbro

rec: Oct 17 - 19, 2019, Cremona, Palazzo Pallavicino
Urania Records - LDV 14061 ( 2020) (75'46")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,1; Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,3; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,4; Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,8; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,9; Concerto grosso in C, op. 6,10

[concertino] Giovanni Benedetto Columbro, Tommaso Sandri Simonetta, transverse flute; Enrico Gramigna, Jacopo Columbro, violin; Giacomo Biagi, cello; Sofia Ferri, theorbo
[concerto grosso] Tatiani Romo Bocanegra, Lino Megni, violin; Marta Pizio, viola; Fabio Longo, violone; Yoan Otano, bassoon; Eddy de Rossi, harp; Luigi Fontana, harpsichord

One of the main genres of instrumental music from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century was the concerto grosso. The name of Arcangelo Corelli is inextricably connected with this genre, and he is often considered its inventor. However, 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 is the contrast between a small group of instruments, the concertino, and the ripieno, the full orchestra.

The set of twelve Concerti grossi Op. 6 is Corelli's last printed collection. He himself prepared the printing, but when the set came from the press he had already died. The twelve concertos are divided into two genres: concerti da chiesa and concerti da camera. Eight concertos are of the first type; the most famous of them is No. 8, with the addition fatto per la Notte di Natale, a concerto to be played at Christmas night.

The year of publication does not tell us anything about the time they were composed. It seems likely that at least some of them date from the 1680s. Georg Muffat was in Rome at the time and reports that he heard Corelli's concerti grossi. It seems likely that over the years Corelli, who was known for being a perfectionist, continuously adapted and improved them. Therefore the concertos as they were published may be quite different from those Muffat heard about thirty years earlier.

In his performances in Rome Corelli 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 to 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 latter practice is also indicated at the title-page: two violins, viola and bass can be added ad arbitrio.

Whatever the size of the ensemble, performances with strings and basso continuo have become the standard. However, it seems likely that wind instruments were also involved. Having mentioned the instruments of the concerto grosso (meaning the ripieno), the title-page adds che si potranno radoppiare: "which can be doubled". It does not say in what way. Does it mean that more strings can be added? That is unlikely, because "two violins" and "viola" don't indicate the number of instruments involved. Lists of instruments involved in performances by Corelli include wind instruements: recorders, oboes, trumpets and trombones. Federico Maria Sardelli seems to have been the first who recorded the concerti grossi with additional winds (Tactus, 2000). Recently, the Freiburger Barockorchester also recorded some of these works with winds.

The disc under review here also performs the selected concerti grossi with winds, but these performances differ from the two mentioned above in two ways. Firstly, Giovanni Battista Columbro decided to make use of flutes - not recorders, as in Sardelli's recording, but transverse flutes. "In our version (...) the original parts of the two solo violins have been assigned to two transverse flutes as it happened in the first decades of the XVIII[th] Century, when the parts for violins could also be played on flutes instead (...)", Columbro states, with reference to works by the likes of Telemann, Locatelli and Bach. In contrast, in the recordings mentioned above, the winds only participate in the ripieno episodes.

Columbra himself refers to a practice in the first decades of the 18th century. This means that these performances have little to do with the way Corelli may have performed his concerti grossi himself. In his time, the baroque flute - different from that used in the late 16th and early 17th centuries - was not known in Italy. It was well after the turn of the century, when the flute as it had been developed in France, made its appearance in Italy. Such a look at Corelli's concerti grossi from a later stage in history is legitimate, but the listener needs to realise this. However, these performances are not unproblematic. First, what was common in the performance of works by other composers is in itself no justification to apply it to Corelli. I would have liked historical evidence that Corelli's concerti grossi have been performed this way in the first quarter of the 18th century, but the liner-notes don't give us any. Second, in the performances with oboes and trumpets I didn't experience them as unnatural. In no way were Corelli's works compromised by their participation. That is different here. It seems to me that the flutes don't fit Corelli's idiom. Their contributions are rather uncomfortable. Columbro may ensure that the original tonalities have been maintained, but he did modify some melodic lines "in order to facilitate then technique of the solo instruments, namely the flutes, though respecting the historical praxis". However, this very fact indicates that the transverse flutes are not the appropriate instruments to play the concertino.

The ensemble does play well, but overall I find this 'transcription and orchestration', as it is called in the track-list, rather unsatisfying. The tempi of the fast movements are too slow, and that may well be partly due to the participation of transverse flutes. Until historical evidence of this practice turns up, I can't see these versions as a valuable contribution to the performance practice of Corelli's concerti grossi.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

CD Reviews