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Concerti grossi

[I] Francesco GEMINIANI (1687 - 1762): "Quinta Essentia"
Concerto Köln
rec: [n.p., n.d.]
Berlin Classics - 0301285BC (© 2019) (78'08")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 2,1 (H 56) [2b]; Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 2,2 (H 51) [2a]; Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,1 (H 73) [3a]; Concerto grosso in e minor, op. 3,6 (H 84) [3b]; Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 7,2 (H 116) [5]; Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 7,6 (H 120) [5]; Concerto grosso in C (after Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Sonata for violin and bc in C, op. 5,3) (H 134) [1]; Concerto grosso in b minor (after Sonata for violin and bc in b minor, op. 4,2) (H 98) [4]

Sources: [1] Concerti Grossi con due Violini, Violoncello, e Viola di Concertino obligati, e due altri Violini, e Basso di Concerto grosso, composti delle sei soli della prima parte dell'Opera Quinta d'Arcangelo Corelli, 1726; [2a/b] Concerti Grossi con due Violini, Violoncello, e Viola di Concertino obligati, e due altri Violini, e Basso di Concerto grosso ad arbitrio, op. 2, 1732, [rev] 1755; [3a/b] Concerti Grossi con due Violini, Violoncello, e Viola di Concertino obligati, e due altri Violini, e Basso di Concerto grosso, op. 3, 1732, [rev] 1755; [4]Concerti Grossi con due Violini, Violoncello, e Viola di Concertino obligati, e due altri Violini, e Basso di Ripieno [after Op. 4], 1743; [5]Concerti Grossi Composti a Parti Reali, op. 7, 1746

Mayumi Hirsaki, Markus Hoffmann, Stephan Sänger, Anna von Raußendorff, Jörg Buschhaus, Frauke Pöhl, Antje Engel, Hedwig van der Linde, violin; Chiharu Abe, violin, viola; Antje Sabinski, Aino Hildebrandt, Claudia Steeb, viola; Jan Kunkel, Alexander Scherf, cello; Jean-Michel Forest, double bass; Lorenzo Alpert, bassoon; Johanna Seitz, harp; Michael Dücker, lute; Gerald Hambitzer, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Concerto grosso - An emigré to the British Isles"
{oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna
Dir: Martyna Pastuszka
rec: Jan 16 - 19, 2017, Katowice (PL), Karol Szymanowski State General Secondary Music School
muso - mu-030 (© 2019) (63'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Charles AVISON (1709-1770): Concerto grosso No. 1 in G (after Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762), Sonata for violin and bc in G, op. 1,1); Francesco GEMINIANI: Concerto grosso in C (after Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Sonata for violin and bc in C, op. 5,3) [1]; Francesco SCARLATTI (1666-c1741): Concerto grosso No. 1 in E; Concerto grosso No. 2 in c minor; Concerto grosso No. 3 in a minor; Concerto grosso No. 4 in e minor; Concerto grosso No. 8 in F (after Alessandro Scarlatti, 1660-1725); Concerto grosso No. 9 in D

Sources: [1] Francesco Geminiani, Concerti grossi ... della prima parte dell'op.5 d'Arcangelo Corelli, 1726

Martyna Pastuszka*, Malgorzata Malke*, Adam Pastuszka, Violetta Szopa-Tomczyk, Dominika Malecka, Kamila Guz, Marzena Biwo, Katarzyna Szewczyk, violin; Dymitr Olszewski, viola; Justyna Mlynarczyk, viola da gamba; Bartosz Kokosza, cello; Michal Bak, double bass; Dohyo Sol, Jan Cizmár, theorbo; Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichord; Anna Firlus, harpsichord, organ
* solo

[III] George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Concerti grossi Op. 6 (1-6)"
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Bernhard Forck
rec: Sept 2018 & Feb 2019, Berlin, Nikodemuskirche
Pentatone - PTC5186737 (© 2019) (72'55")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in G, op. 6,1 (HWV 319)a; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,2 (HWV 320)b; Concerto grosso in e minor, op. 6,3 (HWV 321)c; Concerto grosso in a minor, op. 6,4 (HWV 322)d; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,5 (HWV 323)e; Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,6 (HWV 324)f

Source: Twelve Grand Concertos in 7 Parts, op. 6, 1740

Xenia Löffler, Michael Bosch, oboeabef; Christian Beuse, bassoonabef; Bernhard Forck, Emmanuelle Bernard, Gudrun Engelhardtcd, Kerstin Erben, Barbara Halfterabef, Uta Peters, Dörte Wetzel, Edburg Forck, Thomas Graewe, Rahel Maiabef, Gabriele Steinfeldcd, violin; Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer, Anja-Regine Graewel, Stephan Sieben, viola; Katharina Litschig, Antje Geusen, cello; Walter Rumer, double bass; Miguel Rincón Rodriguez, lute; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord, organ

One of the main genres of instrumental music in the baroque era was the concerto grosso. Arcangelo Corelli was once considered its inventor, but that is contradicted by the facts. It came into existence at several places in Italy in the last three decades of the 17th century. However, Rome was the main centre of composing such works, and there can be little doubt that Corelli's concerti grossi had a huge influence on other composers in Italy and elsewhere.

Outside Italy, there was no part of Europe where Italian music was as popular as in England. Since the publication of Corelli's music, it was seized by a real Corellimania, which gradually turned into a passion for all sorts of Italian music. As a result, England - and in particular London - was the place to be for Italian musicians and composers looking for employment. The fact that London was also a centre of music printing further contributed to the dissemination of music in the Italian style for all sorts of scorings, from concerti grossi for strings to sonatas for recorder. The three discs under review here are devoted to the former genre.

Francesco Geminiani was born in Lucca, and - as so many of his contemporaries - received his first musical education from his father, who was a violinist in the Cappella Palatina there. It is not certain who his main teachers were, but in several sources Arcangelo Corelli is mentioned, alongside with Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Ambrogio Lonati. It is certain, though, that Corelli had a lasting influence on Geminiani. In 1714 he left Italy for England, probably because he didn't see any real chances of a career either in Rome or in Naples, where he spent some time. In England Geminiani found his first patron in the person of Baron Johann Adolf Kielmannsegg. It was he who arranged a public performance in attendance of the king, in which Geminiani was accompanied by Handel at the harpsichord.

Considering the popularity of concerti grossi in England, which were performed by professional musicians in public concerts but also by amateurs in musical societies across the country, it does not come as a surprise that Geminiani extensively contributed to the genre. In fact, the concerto grosso takes the main place in his oeuvre, alongside sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Concerto Köln selected specimens of the four categories in this part of his output. In 1732 Geminiani published two sets of concerti grossi as his Op. 2 and Op. 3 respectively. In 1746 he added his Op. 7, another set of six. That was not all: around 1755 he reissued the previous sets in revised versions. The very fact that he took the effort to revise them indicates that at that time the concerto grosso was still much in demand, and that he himself valued the genre.

The popularity of the concerto grosso also explains why he arranged his own solo sonatas Op. 4 as concerti grossi. He did the same with the sonatas for violin and basso continuo op. 5 by Corelli. That was a smart move, as these sonatas had something like a cult status in England, where a whole stream of arrangements, for instance for recorder, had been printed since the publication of the original versions.

A couple of aspects of Concerto Köln's recording are especially noteworthy. First of all, the programme includes two revised versions of concerti grossi, one each from the Op. 2 and the Op. 3. If I am not mistaken, it is mostly the first versions that are performed and recorded - if at all, because Geminiani's concerti grossi are not that well represented on disc (as is most of his oeuvre, for that matter). The inclusion of two concerti grossi op. 7 is also praiseworthy, as these are almost completely neglected. The booklet includes an interesting essay by Rudolf Rasch, in which he points out the differences between this particular set and the previous collections of concerti grossi. In a number of them Geminiani turns away from the traditional four-movement structure. Whereas the Concerto grosso No. 2 in d minor comprises the usual four movements in the order slow - fast - slow - fast, the Concerto grosso No. 6 in B flat comprises seven movements, some of which are divided into different sections.

The ensemble's bassoonist, Lorenzo Alpert, states in his notes in the booklet: "For the interpretation of Corelli's reworked Sonata Op. 5 No. 3 we took over the embellishments from the contemporary Corelli edition by Etienne Roger (c. 1726) and the written-out basso-continuo version by Antonio Tonelli (1686-1765). The fact that this realisation of a basso-continuo part by an important Italian composer is available to us is an absolute stroke of good luck: with its numerous surprising turns, this basso-continuo version breaks with many rules of convention many contemporary treatises considered sacrosanct". Unfortunately he does not go into detail in this matter. It is also questionable whether the embellishments in the Etienne edition can claim any 'authenticity'. That does not compromise in any way the high level of these performances. These and the choice of repertoire deserve much praise and this disc has earned a place in the collection of any lover of baroque music.

The same goes for the next disc, especially because of the choice of repertoire. The frontispiece tells us that the programme is devoted to concerti grossi written in England, and mentions four composers. One of them stands out: "F. Scarlatti". This refers to Francesco Scarlatti, the younger and little-known brother of Alessandro. Only once he has crossed my path, as a vocal work from his pen is included in a disc with sacred music by the two brothers and Alessandro's son Domenico. That disc was released in 2005. One year before Deux-Elles released a disc entirely devoted to his sacred oeuvre. Moreover, a secular cantata is included in a disc devoted to the Scarlatti family by Kai Wessel and Musica Alta Ripa (MDG, 1996).

Francesco Scarlatti was appointed as violinist at the royal court in Napels in 1684, but returned to his birth-place Palermo in 1691, and stayed there for about 24 years. He tried to find appointments at the courts of Vienna and Naples, but failed. In 1719 he travelled to London, where he participated in public concerts. In 1733 he went to Dublin, where he seems to have died in 1741 or soon after. It is probably because of his obscurity that his name does not figure prominently at the frontispiece of this disc, even though the largest part of the programme is devoted to his music. A look at his work-list in New Grove shows that his oeuvre is rather small, and part of it has been lost. It consists of secular cantatas, four oratorios (two of them are lost) and a handful of other pieces. The concerti grossi included here are not listed.

We owe these works to Charles Avison, a major figure in the music scene in North East England and a strong admirer of Italian music, and in particular of Geminiani. He is known for his arrangements of pieces by the latter and of harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. The pieces by Francesco Scarlatti are included in Avison's Workbook I, which was discovered in 2000. They were originally conceived as sonatas in four parts, but were arranged as concerti grossi. The liner-notes, written by Martyna Pastuszka, don't make it entirely clear, who was responsible for that arrangement, but it seems that it was Francesco Scarlatti himself. The booklet does not tell us - and it is probably not known - when Scarlatti wrote these pieces. They are characterised as "written in a very old-fashioned style". It seems likely that they were composed when Francesco was still living in Italy, and that, when he settled in England, he realised that he could profit from turning them into concerti grossi. Interestingly, the Concerto grosso in F was originally written by Alessandro and adapted by Francesco, who changed some notes and tempo markings. It seems to me that these pieces are worthwhile additions to the concerto grosso repertoire. They may be 'old-fashioned', but they are well written and include some harmonic tension here and there.

Considering that these concerti grossi were found in Avison's Notebook I, it was only logical to include one of his arrangements. The Concerto grosso in G is an arrangement of Geminiani's Sonata in G, op. 1,1 for violin and basso continuo. There is some confusion about this piece in the booklet: the track-list has the correct information, but in the liner-notes, Pastuszka refers to "Francesco Geminiani's arrangement of Charles Avison’s Sonata No. 1, Op.1". Surprisingly, this error appears in all three translations of Pastuszka's original Polish liner-notes. I don't read Polish, but it seems that the Polish text is correct. The remaining work is another arrangement, this time Geminiani's concerto grosso version of Corelli's Sonata in C, op. 5,3, the same piece as is included in Concerto Köln's recording.

The {oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna is a relatively young ensemble, founded in 2012. I have found two previous discs of this ensemble, of which I know only one ("Music of French Masters"), which I liked, but was not entirely satisfied with. That is different this time. I like the playing and the ensemble's sound is more pleasant than on the previous disc. The performers have taken some liberties here, which I am not entirely happy with. However, it does in no way diminish my appreciation of what is on offer here. The choice of these pieces by Francesco Scarlatti deserves much praise and the playing is very fine. This is an important addition to the discography.

George Frideric Handel was German by birth, but he was naturally inclined to the Italian style, and during his stay in Italy he fully embraced it. He met Corelli personally, and even worked with him, when the Roman master played first violin in the performance of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione. After he settled in England, he composed two sets of concerti grossi. In 1734 his six concerti grossi op. 3 were published by John Walsh, probably without the composer's consent. That was different in case of the twelve concerti grossi op. 6, which date from 1739. Handel basically follows the Corellian model, but allows himself some liberties, for instance in the number and character of the movements.

Whereas the Op. 3 concertos were scored for two oboes, strings and basso continuo, in the Op. 6 concertos Handel confines himself to strings and basso continuo. However, ten of the twelve concertos were performed during oratorio performances in the season 1739/40, and at such occasions Handel added oboes, playing colla parte with the violins. That is also the way the Akademie für Alte Musik plays four of the six concertos. In the bass, they added a bassoon, which is a logical option: oboes and bassoon were often used together, for instance in chamber music.

There is no lack of recordings of these concerti grossi, but the participation of oboes and bassoon in some of them makes this recording a worthwhile alternative to most existing interpretations. I am not entirely satisfied with the balance between the oboes and the strings: sometimes I found the latter a bit too dominant. However, that is only a minor issue. These are very fine and often exciting performances, and I am looking forward to the recording of the remaining concertos.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Concerto Köln
{oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna

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