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Concert reviews

"Corelli and the 'Corellimania'"

Harmonie Universelle/Florian Deuter, violin; Mónica Waisman, violin
concert: Nov 15, 2013, Utrecht, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,1; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,4; Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,7; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Concerto grosso after op. 5 by Corelli in g minor 'La Follia'; Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Concerto grosso in e minor, op. 1,4; Giovanni MOSSI (1687-1762): Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3,3; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for 2 violins, strings and bc in F (RV 765)

The concerto grosso is one of the main genres of instrumental music in the baroque era. It is not quite known who invented it: often Corelli is given this honour, but it seems that before him some composers wrote pieces which point into the direction of the concerto grosso as we know it from Corelli's opus 6. This collection of twelve was printed in 1714 in Amsterdam, one year after his death. It is very likely that he started to compose them - or concertos like them - some decades earlier, as Georg Muffat mentions performances of concerti grossi by Corelli during his stay in Rome in 1682.

These concerti grossi are in fact an extension of the trio sonata: the two violins are the core of the concertino and are joined by a cello, which was usually also involved in the performance of trio sonatas. Just as Corelli's trio sonatas became the model for other composers, his concerti grossi met with great appreciation and immediately became the standard of the genre. Many composers followed in his footsteps and created concerti grossi of their own: first those who belonged to his circle, such as his pupils, but also those who had become acquainted with these pieces, like Handel. The latter worked with Corelli, for instance during the performance of his oratorio La Resurrezione. Everything he had heard in Italy left its mark in Handel's oeuvre which he composed once he had settled in England. Among the Italian-influenced compositions are not only his operas, but also his concerti grossi.

The concert of the ensemble Harmonie Universelle, directed by Florian Deuter, was devoted to the concerto grosso, and more in particular Corelli's influence. The core of the programme were three of Corelli's Concerti grossi op. 6. They belong to the best-known orchestral works of the baroque era, but those in the audience who expected to hear familiar stuff must have been surprised or maybe even shocked and probably disappointed. There was no reference to the use of wind instruments in Corelli's concertos, and some readers of the programme sheet must have wondered what on earth the two trumpeters and the trombonist of the ensemble were supposed to do. The very first item cleared them up: they played in the ripieno of Corelli's Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,1. Everyone knows the concerti grossi as pieces for strings and bc and many may have wondered whether we had to do here with an arrangement by Deuter, probably in an attempt to be different. That was not the case, though.

In fact, Corelli's concerti grossi have been recorded in versions with wind instruments by the Italian conductor Federico Maria Sardelli, with his ensemble Modo Antiquo (Tactus, 2006). In the liner-notes of that recording Sardelli states that the payrolls of the musicians hired by Corelli indicate that he himself added wind instruments to the strings. He mentions that the instruments listed in contemporary performances include trumpets, trombones, oboes and flutes. However, Sardelli added that not all concertos are equally suitable to doubling with wind. Some movements are too violinistic in character, and some keys are problematic for in particular the trumpets. He used them in the Concerti grossi 1, 4 and 7 - and so did Harmonie Universelle. Here too the trumpets kept silent in some movements. Sardelli omitted the addition of a trombone, as he assumes this instrument was only used in sacred music.

It was the first time I heard these concertos with brass in a live performance, and I have mixed feelings about their participation. On the one hand it is very interesting to hear these well-known works in this scoring, and it gives some idea of the multi-coloured performance practice in Corelli's time. On the other hand I felt that the balance within the ensemble suffered from the involvement of trumpets and trombone. They had too much presence and sometimes almost overpowered the strings. This could be partly due to the acoustic of the concert hall, which is less than ideal for this kind of repertoire. It could also be that the use of brass requires a larger body of strings. It is known that Corelli sometimes performed his concerti grossi with a pretty large orchestra. A group of 40 strings, as Chiara Banchini used in the recording with her Ensemble 415 (Harmonia mundi, 1992), could probably easier endure the contributions of additional wind instruments than the rather small line-up which appeared at the stage during this concert.

That said, there was much to enjoy. The playing of the ensemble was outstanding, and that includes the brass, although now and then they went off the road a little, as so often happens with these hard-to-play instruments. Nice was also the addition of ornamentation in the ripieno by the two violinists, Florian Deuter and Mónica Waisman.

Harmonie Universelle confined itself to Italian composers - there was no Handel at the programme. Francesco Geminiani and Giovanni Mossi presented themselves as pupils of Corelli, but in both cases that is not established. Geminiani arranged the twelve sonatas for violin and bc by Corelly as concerti grossi for strings and bc. The best-known from this set is his arrangement of the 12th sonata, a series of brilliant variations on La Follia. This arrangement includes much variation in regard to the respective roles of the ripieno and the concertino. Obviously the most brilliant variations are given to the two violins and the cello. Again Deuter and Waisman gave outstanding accounts of their parts; the cellist Johannes Berger was equally impressive. Mossi was the least-known composer on the programme. The second adagio of his Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3,3 was especially notable for the interplay of a solo violin and the tutti violins of the ensemble. It shows in how different ways the form of the concerto grosso could be worked out.

There is no doubt that Locatelli was a pupil of Corelli. He developed into a brilliant and virtuosic violinist, whose style of playing was not universally admired. Some found his playing rough and unpolished. His solo concertos are his best-known compositions, but his Concerti grossi op. 1 deserve more attention than they have received so far. There is no room for violinistic capers here, but Locatelli manages to create a lot of drama in the Concerto grosso in e minor, op. 1,4. Another virtuoso at the violin was Antonio Vivaldi. Although his oeuvre includes influences of the concerto grosso, he has become best-known for his solo concertos. These are more connected to the North-Italian concerto than the concerti grossi of Corelli. The double concertos for two violins belong to the lesser-known part of his oeuvre but are of the same high quality as his solo concertos. Deuter and Waisman were the soloists who gave an engaging and expressive performance of the two solo parts.

The Italian music of the baroque has become the territory of Italian baroque orchestras. Whereas once British ensembles had the lead in the exploration of this repertoire, they now mostly stay away from it. Harmonie Universelle is an international group with members of various nationalities. With this ensemble Deuter managed to explore the character of this music to the full, without committing the excentricities which sometimes mar the performances of Italian ensembles. There was certainly no lack of passion in the concert in Utrecht, and the theatrical character which is part of all Italian baroque music was eloquently exposed. Expression and good taste made a happy match.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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