Friday, October 15, 2021

Vivaldi con amore

Vivaldi is still one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers of the baroque era, alongside Bach and Handel, with some stiff competion from Telemann. Recently several discs with Vivaldi's music have been released. The effect of the composer's popularity it is inevitable that we often get pieces that are already available in several recordings. However, at least one of them comprises concertos that are new to the catalogue, ot at least new in the form in which they are performed.

There is nothing new about the first disc to be reviewed here. Vivaldi's oeuvre includes a little over fifty concertos and sinfonias for strings and basso continuo without any solo parts. There is no fundamental difference between the concerto - in some manuscripts called concerto ripieno - and the sinfonia. The main difference is the treatment of counterpoint. This is more elaborated in the concertos, whereas the sinfonias are generally more homophonic. Here the melody has greater importance and the two violins often play in unison. There is also a difference in keys: the sinfonias are all in major keys, whereas seventeen of the forty concertos are in the minor. These pieces have all been recorded by the ensemble L'Archicembalo, but not everyone is interested in such a comprehensive production. Enrico Onofri recorded a nice selection with the Academia Montis Regalis [1]; it is his first recording with this ensemble as its new conductor. The selection reflects the variety in this section of Vivaldi's oeuvre. Strings and basso continuo is the basic scoring, but in the Concerto alla rustica RV 151 Vivaldi added parts for two oboes. The Concerto RV 155 is a hybrid piece: the first two movements are of the concerto ripieno type, whereas the last two movements include a solo part for the violin. Another kind of hybrid concerto is RV 159, whose last movement has the traces of a concerto grosso. Most sinfonias and concertos comprise three movements, but there are exceptions. One is the above-mentioned RV 155, another the Concerto madrigalesco RV 129, which also has four movements. And then there is the Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV 169, which has two movements, and is also scored for strings without the participation of any keyboard instrument. The Concerto RV 114 is notable for its opening movement in dotted rhythm, à la française, and its closing chiacona. As one will have noticed, there is a lot of variety in this programme, which is given an excellent interpretation by the Academia Montis Regalis, with fine solo contributions by Onofri himself. In some cases I could imagine a faster tempo and more marked dynamic contrasts, but I appreciate that Onofri does not try to contribute to a contest in speed and exuberance.

In addition to more than 250 solo concertos for the violin, Vivaldi wrote many concertos for other instruments, from the lute to the bassoon. As they were often written for professional players or the highly-skilled girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of them are no less virtuosic than those for the violin. Vivaldi also wrote concertos for two and more instruments, often in less than conventional combinations, such as two oboes and two violins. Under the title "Vivaldi con amore", the Canadian Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra [2] released a disc with specimens of the various kinds of concertos that Vivaldi's oeuvre has to offer: two concertos for solo violin and one for four violins, concertos for bassoon and for lute respectively, and two concertos for two oboes, one of them with two solo violins, preceded by the overture to the opera Ottone in villa, which also includes a solo part for the violin. This disc shows that for engaging performances one does not need Italian ensembles. The time has gone that ensembles from the Anglo-Saxon world came up with neat and clear performances, largely devoid of drama and ignoring the fundamentally theatrical nature of Vivaldi's instrumental music, although now and then such performances may still be heard. This disc definitely shows that much has changed. The ensemble, directed by the Italian-born Elisa Citterio, delivers excellent performances. Citterio herself leads the way in her interpretation of the Concerto RV 761, whose last movement is especially nice. Dominic Teresi is responsible for an exciting performance of the Concerto RV 481 for bassoon; the middle movement is particularly theatrical. The disc closes with a compelling performance of the Concerto RV 564a for two oboes and two violins, with excellent solo contributions by John Abberger, Marco Cera, Elisa Citterio and Julia Wedman. This is a very fine disc with a mixture of more or less familiar pieces and lesser-known items.

The next disc, with the ensemble Musica Antiqua Latina [3], is simply called "Vivaldi", and includes concertos and sinfonias. Nothing special, at first sight. However, the booklet includes two essays whose authors, Giovanni De Zorzi and Giordano Antonelli respectively, argue that Venice was an amalgam of different cultures, among them those of the Orient, and that this must have had an effect on the music written there. That sounds plausible, but unfortunately they fail to point out exactly in what way one can notice oriental influences in Vivaldi's music. The disc ends with the Sinfonia in b minor (RV 168), and the last movement opens with an improvisation on the Greek lyra by Antonelli (what kind of instrument he plays is not specified), which then leads to the music that Vivaldi has written. I can't take this seriously; this is a gimmick to demonstrate an influence in Vivaldi's music that the authors of the essays and the performers otherwise fail to prove. Overall the playing is alright, although I am not really enthusiastic about what is on offer here. That has also to do with the recording. Apparently to compensate for the reverberation of the venue where the recording took place (which is clearly audible at the end of movements), the miking is rather close. The two cello concertos are particularly unsatisfying: the sound of the cello gets right in your face, as it has been placed in front of the ensemble. I sometimes had the impression that the cello's solo part had been recorded in a different room. This has nothing to do with the role of the solo instrument as primus inter pares in Vivaldi's music (or in baroque solo concertos in general, for that matter). The part for transverse flute in the Concerto RV 96 is played at the recorder, but that is not mentioned in the track-list or the list of performers. I can't see this disc as a substantial contribution to the Vivaldi discography.

Vivaldi composed many violin concertos for his own use. However, he also had some virtuosic performers at the Ospedale del Pietà, and one of them was a real star, Anna Maria. As was customary, the orphans who were taken in and received a (musical) education, were known only with their forename, given to them when they entered. Anna Maria left a partbook which includes 31 concertos, most of them by Vivaldi. They comprise only the solo part and sometimes the bass. A number of these concertos are known from other sources, but some are not, and this means that they can only be performed through reconstruction. Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes to the Glossa recording by Modo Antiquo under the direction of Federico Maria Sardelli [4], explains how such reconstructions are possible, despite the scarcity of the material. One reason is that Vivaldi often reused material from previous compositions, slightly or more rigorously reworked. Moreover, there are certain patterns in his oeuvre which help the editor of reconstructions. The fact that some concertos include an organ part is not an additional problem, but in fact makes the reconstruction easier because of Vivaldi's habit of making the two instruments move in parallels or imitate each other. Even so, reconstructions of this kind are inevitably speculative, and unless the original concertos are found, we cannot be sure that these reconstructions are in accordance with what Vivaldi intended. In the end, it is the result that counts, and these reconstructed versions make an excellent impression and can be considered substantial additions to Vivaldi's oeuvre. The concertos for violin and organ are definitely the most interesting as to date we knew only a handful of pieces in this scoring. RV 774 and 775 were known, but only incomplete, whereas RV 808, as the number in the Ryom catalogue suggests, was not established as an authentic Vivaldi work until recently. With Federico Guglielmo we have an accomplished performer, who has a vast experience in Vivaldi's music; with his ensemble L'Arte dell'Arco he recorded a large number of discs with Vivaldi's music for Brilliant Classics. Roberto Loreggian is an excellent keyboard player, as he shows here once again. I had only wished they had used a larger organ with a broader palette of colours.

There has been quite some fuss about Nicola Benedetti's [5] forays in the world of baroque music, as I learnt from a search at the internet for her credentials. She has made a good career with later repertoire, and that may explain why I had never heard of her. At first, I was sceptical as I have encountered too often performers who jump the bandwagon of what seems to be selling well. However, Benedetti seems to be sincere: she has sought the advice of the Italian harpsichordist and conductor Andrea Marcon, and in her ensemble she collected some respected performers from the period instrument scene. Although she plays a modernized violin, I learnt from several sources that she uses gut strings and plays a baroque bow. That is also how it sounds, and overall I am quite happy with the way Benedetti plays Vivaldi. She does not entirely focus on the virtuosic aspects, but also pays much attention to the lyrical and expressive side of Vivaldi's concertos. She exercises restraint in her insertation of cadenzas, in that she does not use them to show off by making them too long or too virtuosic. The fact that, as a kind of 'encore', she adds an andante from another concerto, rather than a virtuosic fast movement, supports my impression of someone who takes the music seriously and does not use it for her own good. This disc, although unfortunately rather short, is a welcome addition to the discography, and I sincerely hope that Nicola Benedetti is willing to further explore the world of baroque violin music. How about some Tartini?

The concertos for the recorder and the flautino are among Vivaldi's most popular works. That has undoubtedly to do with their quality, but also with the fact that the number of baroque solo concertos for the recorder seems to be rather limited. There are fewer to choose from, certainly in comparison with what is availble for the transverse flute or the oboe. Many recorder players of name have recorded some or all of them, and Giovanni Antonini [6] is certainly a performer of that category. Given that he has been around for quite some time - Il Giardino Armonico was founded in 1985 - it is rather surprising that only now he has recorded Vivaldi's concertos. I have read some reviews of this disc which were all full of praise for Antonini's performances. His virtuosity and imagination are certainly impressive, and if there are still some who think that the recorder is not an instrument for virtuosic playing, this disc proves them wrong. However, I feel that Antonini focusses too much on technical virtuosity. In too many concertos, he did not make me enjoy the music. I am not saying that he uses them to show off, but to my taste he goes too far in emphasizing these concertos' - and his own - brilliance. In the largo of the Concerto in C (RV 443) he just does not add embellishments, he almost rewrites what Vivaldi has written down, comparable with the bad habit of some opera singers to rewrite, as it were, arias in the dacapo. The Concerto in F (RV 442), which closes the disc, is the most enjoyable piece of the entire programme, as here he keeps it relatively quiet. I should add that Il Giardino Armonico also falls for the temptation to try too hard to be different from the competition, a habit of quite some Italian ensembles. If I want to really enjoy Vivaldi's recorder concertos, I am turning to another disc.

[1] Concerti particolari
Academia Montis Regalis/Enrico Onofri, violin
Passacaille PAS 1100 (© 2021) details

[2] "Vivaldi con Amore"
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra/Elisa Citterio
tafelmusik TMK 1039CD (© 2019) details

[3] "Vivaldi"
Musica Antiqua Latina/Giordano Antonelli, cello
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439846222 (© 2021) details

[4] "Lost Concertos for Anna Maria"
Federico Guglielmo, violin; Roberto Loreggian, organ; Modo Antiquo/Federico Maria Sardelli
Glossa GCD 924601 (© 2020) details

[5] "Baroque"
Benedetti Baroque Orchestra/Nicola Benedetti, violin
Decca 485 1891 (© 2021) details

[6] "Concerti per flauto"
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini, recorder
Alpha 364 (© 2020) details

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bach and the violin

There is probably no greater challenge for violinists than the interpretation of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is like climbing Mount Everest. It is extremely difficult and not everyone gets there. Nowadays a historical instrument or in any case an interpretation according to the principles of historical performance practice is almost a prerequisite for a convincing performance. The career of the exceptional violinist Thomas Zehetmair [1] is particularly revealing. He has always felt just as comfortable in the baroque repertoire as in contemporary music. His curiosity guarantees that he gets to the bottom of every work. The focus is not on his own abilities, but always on the music. It resulted in his studying these works with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the early days of his career when he played in the Concentus musicus Wien. This resulted in a recording, at that time still on a modern violin and with a modern bow. This was reissued a few years ago and is still of great importance. For those who are skeptical of historical instruments, it may serve as a bridge between 'new' and 'old'. In 2019, ECM released a new recording of these works from 2016, and this time Zehetmair turned to period instruments. He plays two different baroque violins and two baroque bows. His starting point has not changed in comparison to the first recording: his interpretation is based on the principle of 'music as speech', as Harnoncourt once pithily summed up the character of baroque music in the title of a book. This is expressed here in the treatment of phrasing and articulation as well as dynamics and tempo. It is notable that Zehetmair allows himself more freedom in these matters today. In doing so, he does not deviate from the principles of historical performance practice. He has internalized them and can now bring in his own views. After all, it is one of the characteristics of historical performance practice that one's own personality may be part of it and that one may adapt the interpretation to the circumstances. This explains the differences between the many recordings that are available. Which one to prefer is ultimately a matter of taste. I like this new interpretation by Zehetmair very much. Technically, his playing is impressive. It is amazing how in some of the movements he plays at high speed, the articulation remains very clear and he also manages to dynamically differentiate between good and bad notes. Dynamic shading is also carefully dosed, for example in the ciaccona from the Partita No. 2. It starts out very powerful, but then there are quieter passages. This movement is an example of one in a relatively brisk tempo (12'29"). Others are the fugue and the presto from the Sonata No. 1 and the concluding allegro from the Sonata No. 2. But even then Zehetmair varies the tempo: the allegro from the second sonata is not as fast as the fugue of the first. It is also nice - and this can also be interpreted as a sign of internalization - that he plays ornaments in repeats. As one may know, this is a matter of debate among interpreters and scholars. However, one doesn't need to fully agree with every decision in order to regard this interpretation as a monument of Bach interpretation. I personally prefer strong restraint in this matter, but that does not prevent me from putting this recording at the top of my list of favourite recordings of these works. Another which is high at my list is the one by Amandine Beyer (ZigZag Territoires, 2011). I would also like to mention Gunar Letzbor (PanClassics, 2013/2014), who has something special to offer in that you can hear what the player himself is hearing while playing. It is something one needs to get used to, but it is very revealing and intriguing, and Letzbor is obviously a superb performer.

The second recording of the sonatas and partitas is quite different. I hesitated whether to review it at all because we are dealing here with a compromise between traditional and historical performance practice. Such compromises are not uncommon, and they are seldom convincing. Tomás Cotik's interpretation [2] is no exception. He plays a modern violin in modern tuning (a = 440 Hz). He does not use gut strings, but rather synthetic strings that produce a slightly milder sound. It is hardly noticeable, because Cotik's tone is unplesantly penetrating, compared to the sound of the baroque violins that Zehetmair plays. Cotik does play with a baroque bow, but that makes little sense if the violin is from a different aesthetic tradition. 'Music as speech' is not the foundation of this performance, because Cotik often plays legato and there is little difference between good and bad notes. His tempos are often a little faster than Zehetmair's: for the ciaccona of the second partita he only needs 10'55" (vs 12'29"), but his fast movements sound hasty and therefore superficial. In the allegro of the second sonata he largely omits dynamic contrasts. The preceding andante is then again too slow: he takes it for an adagio. Where Zehetmair's playing always breathes, even at the fastest tempos, the listener gets breathless with Cotik. It's all too much of the same. I was often bored listening to it. That’s a bad sign.

Plamena Nikitassova and Peter Waldner [3] have recorded a mixed programme in which the two major cycles are represented. They play three of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin (Nos. 3, 4 and 6); in addition Nikitassova plays the Sonata No. 3 for solo violin and Waldner the Adagio BWV 968, which is an arrangement of the first movement of the sonata. The aim of this production was not primarily to present works by Bach; after all, there are many recordings of these pieces. The focus is on the instruments they use. Plamena Nikitassova plays a Stainer violin owned by the Tiroler Landesmuseums Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck. Stainer violins were played in Central Germany in Bach's time, and he may have owned such a violin himself. The harpsichord is a copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Harraß, made by Jürgen Ammer. There are no details about this instrument in the booklet, but in several works I noted the use of a 16' register, for instance in the Adagio BWV 968. The existence of instruments with a 16' register in Bach's time is documented. The question is when and in what kind of music it was used and whether Bach used it himself, but that may be impossible to answer. The performer's personal taste also plays a role. In any case, I am not very enthusiastic about interpretations in which this register is used. That doesn't compromise my generally positive assessment of this production. These two excellent musicians bring convincing interpretations. Plamena Nikitassova's performance of Sonata No. 3 is very good; her tempi are somewhat more moderate than Zehetmair's, and I rate his realisation of the double stopping a little higher, but both performances are based on the same principles. This comes also to the fore in the three sonatas for harpsichord and violin, which are performed in a speechlike manner. with a clear articulation and appropriate dynamic differentiation. The problem, however, is the balance between the instruments, which is too much in favour of the violin. It is rather odd that a harpsichord with a 16' register struggles to hold its own against the violin.

The sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014-1019) are among the most frequently performed and recorded chamber music works by Bach. Several recordings have come onto the market in recent years. Most of them have nothing special to offer, and it is regrettable that the performers don't turn to less common repertoire. However, one recent recording is different from almost any other. Freddy Eichelberger and Odile Edouard [4] wanted to celebrate a collaboration of thirty years with a new recording. They have often performed repertoire from the 17th century, but Bach has always been a thread through the careers of both musicians. And so the idea came about to record the sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Eichelberger is first and foremost an organist, so it was an obvious choice to play the harpsichord part on the organ. There is no historical argument for this decision. It seems highly unlikely that Bach ever did so himself. That does not mean that these sonatas cannot be performed this way. In the baroque era composers and performers were pretty pragmatic in choosing instruments. Ultimately, it's the result that matters. The booklet rightly points out that the balance between the harpsichord and the violin is problematic. I can confirm that on the basis of several recordings, including the one just mentiioned. Too often the violin dominates, whereas both instruments are treated on equal footing by Bach. In a performance with organ, there is little chance that it will dominate. However, here it is rather the other way around. There are some moments when the organ overshadows the violin. There are no such problems in the two sonatas for violin and basso continuo (BWV 1021 and 1023); there the organ plays a more modest role. Eichelberger has selected three organs that suit Bach's style. He also plays some organ works in between the sonatas. Despite the critical remarks, I recommend this set of discs to Bach lovers, because it offers an opportunity to hear these pieces in a different way. Eichelberger and Edouard deliver good performance, but I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts in the violin part.

The last disc then focusses on the sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Several such sonatas are attributed to Bach, but only two are considered authentic: BWV 1021 in G and BWV 1023 in e minor. La Divina Armonia [5] - Mayumi Hirasaki (violin), Anna Camporini (cello) and Lorenzo Ghielmi (harpsichord) - has recorded both sonatas and the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024), which is of doubtful authenticity and whose composer could not yet be established with any amount of certainty. The fourth work is the Sonata for harpsichord and violin BWV 1022, which has its origin in a trio sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, that in turn is derived from the sonata BWV 1021. The program is expanded with two harpsichord works, which also have their origins in violin works: the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) - an arrangement of the Sonata No. 2 for violin solo - and the Adagio in G (BWV 968), which was originally conceived as the first movement of the Sonata No. 3 for violin solo. The result is a programme of strong coherence and at the same time variety in scoring. From these artists one expects first class performances and that is exactly what we get here. The balance between the instruments is exactly right. Mayumi Hirasaki plays beautifully and dynamically differentiated, both in the contrast between good and bad notes and on long notes. Ghielmi delivers speechlike performances of the harpsichord works. The choice of tempi is also convincing; the andante of the Sonata BWV 964, for example, is played at a nice walking tempo and not like an adagio. Everything is right here.

[1] "The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Thomas Zehetmair, violin
ECM New Series 2551/52 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[2] "Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Tomás Cotik, violin
Centaur CRC 3755/3756 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[3] "Sonaten"
Plamena Nikitassova, violin; Peter Waldner, harpsichord
Musikmuseum CD13045 (© 2020) details

[4] "Trios pour clavier et violon"
Freddy Eichelberger, organ; Odile Edouard, violin
L'Encelade ECL 1704 (3 CDs) (© 2020) details

[5] "Sonatas for violin and basso continuo"
La Divina Armonia
Passacaille PAS 1077 (© 2020) details