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CD reviews

Italian concertos & sonatas

[I] "Caught in Italian Virtuosity"
4 Times Baroque
rec: Sept 11 - 14, 2017, Schloss Burgpreppach/Unterfranken (D)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075818232 (© 2018) (60'35")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Sonata in d minor, op. 5,7; Sonata in d minor, op. 5,12 'La Follia' (transposed to g minor); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Overture Rinaldo (HWV 7); Tarquinio MERULA (1595-1665): Ciaccona; Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Sonata a 2 in F; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767) / Pierre PROWO (1697-1757): Sonata in d minor (TWV 42,d10); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in F (RV 100); Concerto in g minor 'La notte' (RV 104)

Jan Nigges, recorder; Jonas Zschenderlein, violin; Karl Simko, cello; Alexander von Heißen, harpsichord

[II] "L'estro vivaldiano - Venetian composers and their mutual influences"
Mensa Sonora
rec: May 2017, Saint-Pierre d'Albigny (F), Eglise Saint-Pierre
Passacaille - 1035 (© 2018) (70'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751): Sonata a 4 in A; Padre BICAJO (?-?): Concerto for violin, organ, strings and bc in g minor; Giorgio GENTILI (1669-after 1730): Concerto in a minor, op. 6,6 [2]; Concerto in B flat, op. 6,8 [2]; Concerto da camera in d minor, op. 2,11 [1]; Johann Friedrich SCHREYFOGEL (fl bef. 1750): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minor; ?Giuseppe TORELLI (1658-1709) / ?Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in g minor; Antonio VIVALDI: Concerto for strings and bc in A (RV 160); Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in b minor (RV 169); Marc'Antonio ZIANI (1653-1715): Sinfonia del Sepolcro in c minor

Sources: Giorgio Gentili, [1] Concerti da camera a tre, op. 2, 1703; [2] Concerti a quattro, op. 6, 1716

Gabriel Grosbard, Marie Rouquié, violin; Josèphe Cottet, viola; Antoine Touche, cello; Matthieu Boutineau, organ

"Caught in Italian virtuosity" is the conspicuous title of a disc with chamber music from the baroque period, recorded by a young German ensemble, 4 Times Baroque, founded in 2013. Erik Ose, in his liner-notes, rightly refers to the strong contrasts which are a feature of this period in music history. "Hardly any other period of European cultural history is so contradictory, so full of extremes as that which spanned the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries - today appositely termed the 'Baroque'." Those contrasts come especially to the fore in the musical depiction of human emotions, often referred to as affetti. However, this disc which is the first of the ensemble on the deutsche harmonia mundi label, seems to focus on the virtuosic side of baroque music.

In particular the names of Corelli and Vivaldi guarantee a large amount of virtuosity. Vivaldi is famous for it, but was also criticised for it. Corelli is probably not associated with virtuosity in the first place, but here we hear two sonatas from the set of twelve for violin and basso continuo, which he published as his Op. 5, and there is certainly no lack of virtuosity in them. The last sonata of the set, a series of variations on La Follia, is the most brilliant item of this collection. It is played here on the recorder, an option which was already practised shortly after Corelli published them.

If a young ensemble presents itself, one probably expects a programme which avoids the well-trodden paths. That is different here: with the exception of the Sonata a due in F by Giuseppe Sammartini, all the pieces on this disc are very well-known and available in various, sometimes even many, recordings. Two pieces need some comment. The programme opens with the overture to Handel's opera Rinaldo. Obviously that was scored for orchestra, but here we hear a chamber music version, with recorder and violin. There is no objection against such a line-up; after all, William Babell arranged many instrumental pieces and arias from Handel's operas for the harpsichord. However, the fact that in the first two movements an alto recorder is used, and a soprano recorder in the third, suggests that this line-up is not the most appropriate. The second piece is the Sonata in d minor by Pierre Prowo, a name that may be new to many music lovers. However, this sonata has been recorded under the name of Telemann. According to Ose, it is now considered a piece by his contemporary Prowo. That is not quite correct: in fact only the basso continuo part is attributed to Prowo. However, recently the Dutch musicologist Thiemo Wind has cast serious doubt on this attribution.

The ensemble 4 Times Baroque is obviously especially concerned about exploring the contrasts in the baroque repertoire. That deserves applause, but I don't advocate its tendency to exaggerate those contrasts. Vivaldi is a composer who liked to incorporate special effects in his music, in particular in the concertos with titles. It is the task of the performer to bring them out as much as possible, but not to add some of their own, such as here in the Concerto in d minor 'La notte'. Exploring the contrasts in baroque music is also no excuse for producing ugly sounds, such as in the closing movement from the 'Prowo' sonata. In Merula's Ciaccona they allow themselves far too many liberties, and the result is unbearable. Handel's overture is also disappointing; in particular in the opening largo the playing is rather awkward. A German newspaper called these four players 'popstars'. That is no recommendation, as far as I am concerned. Rather than eccentricities in the performances I would have liked a more original programme.

There are two similarities between the two discs reviewed here. Vivaldi is the key figure, and through the inclusion of pieces by other composers he is put into his historical context. Corelli is the main figure of the previous generation, Sammartini is an Italian contemporary, and Telemann shows Vivaldi's influence in Germany. The second disc includes a piece by Albinoni, another of Vivaldi's Italian contemporaries, but otherwise the ensemble Mensa Sonora focuses on lesser-known composers, such as Gentili and Schreyfogel.

The title of their recording refers to one of Vivaldi's best-known collections of concertos, L'Estro armonico, literally "the harmonic imagination". Olivier Fourès, in his liner-notes, mentions that the German composer Johann Joachim Quantz considered fantasy and imagination the main features of Vivaldi's music, which exerted such a strong attraction on his contemporaries in Italy and abroad. Certainly in Germany, but increasingly also in France, Italian music, and in particular the oeuvre of Vivaldi, was admired, copied and used as a source of inspiration.

No composer is born with fully-developed skills, and that goes also for Vivaldi. Unfortunately we know very little about his formative years. As his father was also a violinist, we may assume that he was Antonio's first teacher. In his childhood several composers of repute were active in Venice, and they must have had a considerable influence on his development as a composer. Among them were Giovannio Legrenzi, often considered a link between the style of the 17th century and that of the Vivaldi generation. In the programme another composer figures prominently: Giorgio Gentili, who was a member of the chapel of St Mark's. In that capacity a colleague of Vivaldi's father, and Antonio's senior by nine years. He published his Sonate da camera a 3, op. 2 in 1703, the same year Vivaldi's trio sonatas op. 1 were printed. Fourès notes some stylistic similarities between the two composers, but states that "it is impossible to say who was copying whom: the beginning of Gentili's Concerto Op. 6 No. 6 is strikingly similar to the Concerto in A minor for two violins that Vivaldi was to publish in his Estro armonico".

In Vivaldi's works we find some instrumental pieces of a sacred character. One of them is the Sinfonia a Santo Sepolcro in b minor (RV 169), which clearly links up with a tradition in Venice, judging by a similar piece from the pen of Marc Antonio Ziani, the Sinfonia del Sepolcro in c minor.

Albinoni and Torelli are among the most prominent contemporaries of Vivaldi. In Albinoni's oeuvre we find elements which refer to the previous century, such as five-part string writing, as well as modern traits: the allocation of solo parts to single instruments, and a construction of concertos in three movements. There is something very recognizable in his oeuvre; the Sinfonia a 4 in A is a perfect example. If you know his oboe concertos, you will immediately recognize this piece as being from his pen. Torelli is far lesser known today than either Albinoni and Vivaldi, but he played a crucial role in the development of the solo concerto, which manifests itself especially in his pieces for trumpet(s) and strings. The programme includes a Concerto in g minor, the authorship of which has not been established to date, and which could be from the pen of either Torelli or Vivaldi.

The remaining pieces document Vivaldi's influence on other composers. One of them is Johann Friedrich Schreyfogel, about whom very little is known, except that he worked as a violinist in Milan between 1710 and 1750. It is notable that a number of his works are part of the library of the Dresden court chapel, which is the result of the collector's mania of its concert master, Johann Georg Pisendel, a strong admirer of the Italian style. Idiomatically the Concerto for violin in d minor is very 'Vivaldian'. The same goes for the Concerto in g minor for violin and organ by a certain Padre Bicajo, which shows strong similarities with Vivaldi's concertos for the same scoring. Like Schreyfogel, Bicajo has no entry in New Grove, and nothing is known about him. It is even considered that this name may be a pseudonym.

The Concerto in A (RV 160) documents the Vivaldi mania in France: it is part of a set of twelve concertos for strings and basso continuo, generally known as Concerti di Parigi. They are preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and were probably put together for Count Jacques-Vincent Languet de Gergy, French ambassador in Venice and an important patron of Vivaldi in the 1720s. The originals of these concertos are preserved in Turin; here the Concerto in A is claimed to have been recorded in its early version for the first time. However, only recently I reviewed a recording of these concertos, all of which were played in their original versions by the ensemble Il delirio fantastico.

The two discs which are the subject of this review, cannot be compared one-to-one, because of the difference in scoring and in repertoire. However, it is obvious that the approach of the two ensembles is different. The contrasts in the repertoire are certainly not lost on the members of Mensa Sonora. That comes to the fore in the choice of tempi, but also the expressive performance of the slow movements. Fortunately they avoid the eccentricities of 4 Times Baroque, and as a result their recording is much better. Obviously one of its strenghts is the choice of repertoire, which is original and includes several pieces which are little known or not known at all. The use of a large organ in the basso continuo and as a solo instrument in the concerto by Padre Bicajo is another asset of this recording. I have greatly enjoyed this disc and urge any lover of Italian instrumental music of the baroque period to investigate it.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

4 Times Baroque
Mensa Sonora

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