Mandolin on Stage

The Greatest Mandolin Concertos
Raffaele La Ragione, Il Pomo d’Oro, Francesco Corti
Arcana A524

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This exciting and enjoyable CD of concertos for early mandolins begins with the well-known Concerto in C major (RV 425) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Raffaele La Ragione plays a copy of a six-course Lombard mandolin built by Tiziano Rizzi after an original by Antonio Monzino (1792). It makes a bright, crisp sound which stands out from the group of accompanying instruments, but I would rather hear Vivaldi not played with a plectrum as La Ragione does, but rather with the right-hand fingers, which produce a sweeter more mellow sound. In his contribution to the book, The Early Mandolin, Early Music Series 9 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), page 38, James Tyler writes: “From the evidence examined so far, it is clear that finger-style playing was the norm for the mandolino in Italy, and I can find no evidence for plectrum-style playing until the second half of the eighteenth century.” However, La Ragione’s virtuosity and musicality are nevertheless impressive, and he brings life and vigour to his performance.

Il Pomo d’Oro is conducted by the harpsichord player, Francesco Corti, who adds his own embellishments, and keeps the ensemble tightly knit. The accompanying instruments from the group are two violins, viola, cello, double bass, harpsichord and theorbo. The theorbo is a welcome asset. It does much to create a warm, homogeneous sound. In the slow second movement the harpsichord drops out, and Miguel Rincon’s theorbo gently provides harmony, countermelodies, deep bass notes, and tasteful end-of-phrase fill-ins. Vivaldi’s third movement is typical of his style, with a plethora of broken chords, repeated notes, scalic passages, and round-the-clock chord progressions. Enjoy the third movement on YouTube.

There are seven items altogether: four concertos with a mandolin of some sort, interspersed with three items without mandolin. The first of the non-mandolin pieces is a lively Sinfonia in G major by Baldassarre Galuppi (1706-85). There is much repetition of four-bar phrases, and a lack of complex harmony and lyrical melodies. It is a romp designed to invigorate the soul. The other tracks without a mandolin are an Allegro presto from a Sinfonia in B flat major by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), and an Allegro from a Sinfonia in D major by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

The second concerto for mandolin is one in E flat major attributed to Paisiello. For this La Ragione plays a four-course Neapolitan mandolin by an anonymous Neapolitan maker c. 1770. Neapolitan mandolins are what most people today think of as mandolins. They have four courses of metal strings and are tuned in fifths. They are played with a plectrum, which gives a strong attack and enables super-fast tremolo notes. La Ragione’s instrument has a clear, full sound, which he uses to good effect, with a pleasing variety of tone and dynamic, particularly noticeable in a long unaccompanied passage towards the end of the second movement. The uplifting third movement is played with enthusiasm by soloist and orchestral members alike.

La Raggione also uses his Neapolitan instrument for a Mandolin Concerto in G major by Francesco Lecce (fl. 1750-1806). The second movement, Largo, is especially gratifying, with La Raggione’s bright, well-shaped phrases enhanced by the gentle notes of Rincon’s theorbo. The third movement, Allegro balletto, requires a fair amount of dexterity from La Ragione, with fast flurries of notes now in threes now in fours.

Another track to be found on YouTube is the Rondo from the Concerto in G major by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). For this Concerto La Ragione plays a four-string Brescian mandolin by Lorenzo Lippi after a late 18th-century original by Carlo Bergonzi II. With its four single courses it has a more delicate sound than the Neapolitan mandolin, which La Ragione turns to his advantage. He is accompanied by a small orchestra, in which flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns are added to the strings and harpsichord. The extra instruments help to create a fuller sound, and provide a welcome contrast of timbres. What cheerful music this is.

Stewart McCoy

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