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Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695 - 1764): Concerti grossi op. 1, Vol. 1

La Follia Barocca

rec: Nov 2 - 5, 2006, Sarnico
Velut Luna Records - cvld 169 (© 2008) (59'34")

Concerto grosso in F, op. 1,1; Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 1,2; Concerto grosso in F, op. 1,3; Concerto grosso in e minor, op. 1,4; Concerto grosso in D, op. 1,5; Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 1,6

Pietro Antonio Locatelli is first and foremost known as the composer of 12 virtuosic violin concertos which were published as his opus 3 in 1733. In this capacity he is considered the "founding-father of modern instrumental virtuosity" as the Dutch musicologist Albert Dunning writes in New Grove. These concertos overshadow the other collections of music, although the commemoration of his birth in 1995 has resulted in the recording of the largest part of his oeuvre. At this same occasion his 12 Concerti grossi opus 1 were recorded by the Raglan Baroque Players (Hyperion). In addition there are recordings of selections from this opus, but the disc presented here is the first of two with the complete opus 1.

Locatelli was a child prodigy and became a member of the instrumental ensemble of the basilica in his birthplace, Bergamo, at the age of 14. In 1711 he went to Rome, where he came under the influence of Corelli, although there is no evidence that he was his pupil. It can't be considered a coincidence that his first opus to be published was a series of 12 concerti grossi - just like Corelli's opus 6. They are clearly modelled after Corelli's concerti grossi, but he nevertheless develops his own musical style which is expanding in the next collections of music, in particular the famous violin concertos.

Locatelli spent most of his lifetime in Amsterdam, probably mainly because the city was the centre of music publishing in Europe. His opus 1 was published by Le Cène, who also printed other collections of orchestral music. Locatelli took care of printing and selling his own chamber music, though, and as at his death he turned out to be quite prosperous he obviously must have been a pretty good entrepreneur. He also sold musical instruments and strings, and he collected books and art. Although he mostly stayed away from social life in the city he regularly gave concerts at his home, probably for a circle of wealthy citizens.

Locatelli had the reputation of a violin virtuoso, but it didn't bring him only praise. There is a report about a concert by Locatelli and his French colleague Jean-Marie Leclair. According to the report Leclair was playing like an angel and Locatelli like the devil. Although there is considerable doubt about whether this concert has ever taken place, the comment sheds some light on the controversial nature of Locatelli as a performer. The English journalist Charles Burney also showed little enthusiasm for his music which "excites more surprise than pleasure". And his contemporary Charles Avison, a staunch admirer of Locatelli's colleague Francesco Geminiani, characterised Locatelli's music as "defective in various harmony and true invention". And there are some pretty harsh judgements in modern times as well like in the article on Locatelli in the 1954 edition of the English music encyclopedia Grove: "He oversteps all reasonable limits and aims at effects which, being adverse to the very nature of the violin, are neither beautiful nor musical, but ludicrous and absurd."

It is probably true that most of these judgements are based on the violin concertos opus 3 only. Today we know almost his complete oeuvre, and that has generally led to a much more positive assessment of Locatelli. In his Concerti grossi opus 1, for instance, Locatelli uses a more moderate musical language. They don't differ that much from Corelli's concerti grossi. Like these they have at least four movements, mostly slow-fast-slow-fast. The first and second movements are predominantly polyphonic, and the second usually is a fugue. The third movement is mostly homophonic. Eight of the concertos are written in the form of the sonata da chiesa whereas the other four show the pattern of the sonata da camera - again just like Corelli's opus 6.

But Locatelli doesn't imitate him. One difference with Corelli is the scoring of the concertino: to Corelli's two violins and cello Locatelli adds a viola which considerably changes the sound of the concertino passages. Locatelli's concerti grossi are also more individualistic, for instance in that there are some solo passages for the cello, like in the largo of the Concerto grosso No 4. Not without reason Marco Scandelli is especially mentioned as violoncello solista at the front of the booklet. These concertos are also more theatrical, as one will notice rightaway in the very first concerto where the second movement (largo) builds a quite dramatic transition from the opening allegro to the third movement, again an allegro. The next movement, another largo, is also theatrical in nature, and the concerto closes with a beautiful polyphonic allegro. While these concerti grossi generally are void of the extravagance of the violin concertos, some of it shines through in the last movement of the Concerto grosso No 3.

Sometimes you just know that a disc is very good after only a couple of tracks. That was my experience here. I was immediately struck by the qualities of La Follia Barocca while listening the first concerto. I had never heard of the ensemble before. The booklet doesn't say when they have been founded, but it reports about concerts in the USA which were "enthusiastically received". That is easy to understand, judging by this recording which apparently is their very first. They avoid the mannerisms which some Italian ensembles are guilty of, but no detail in these concertos is overlooked. In many concertos there are little peculiarities and La Follia Barocca make sure they don't escape the listener's attention. What is very important is that the theatrical character of Locatelli's music is fully explored. The many features of these performances, like a logical choice of tempi, a clear articulation, a wide variety in the dynamic contrasts and a great clarity in sound, are all means to the end of revealing the many qualities of Locatelli's concertos.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this disc, because of the quality and the sheer beauty of Locatelli's concertos, and because of the outstanding performances of La Follia Barocca. I therefore strongly recommend it. When everything has gone according to plan the remaining six concertos have been recorded in June of last year. I very much look forward to the release of the second volume of this fine project.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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