Cello Concertos from Northern Germany

Gulrim Choï, Ensemble Diderot
Audax Records ADX11200

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Ensemble Diderot’s exploration of pre-classical German music has recently focussed on the culturally dynamic city of Berlin, and these four attractive cello concertos, two of which are receiving world premiere recordings, certainly deserve a place in our understanding of it. The most famous composer represented here, probably due to his later move to London, is gamba virtuoso, composer and Bach pupil, Carl Friedrich Abel, indeed the only one of the four composers here that I have previously come across. By contrast, Ignác Frantisek Mara, Markus Heinrich Grauel and Johann Wilhelm Hertel have been treated less kindly by posterity, sinking into relative neglect. In these characterful performances by cellist Gulrim Choï, the quirky originality of all four composers becomes evident. It is interestingly in the slow movements of their cello concertos that their individuality becomes most apparent, but these are remarkably accomplished works full of musical inspiration. I often feel that the music from the melting pot of the pre-classical period, with its heady ethos of exploration and experimentation, is more interesting and exciting than that of the more settled classical period itself, and this is very much the case here. Combining technical assurance and an engaging sense of adventure, all four composers represented have something valuable to say, and Choï and the Diderot Ensemble give them vivid and eloquent expression here.

D. James Ross


Geminiani: La Forêt enchantée

Elisa Baciocchi Ensemble
Tactus TC 680706

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Geminiani’s La Forêt enchantée is a theatrical pantomime inspired by Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, most famous perhaps as the source of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It is an entirely instrumental piece designed to accompany dance and mime, but this presentation interpolates extracts from the Tasso to provide context for the music. This and the addition of a flute to the original string texture seem reasonable liberties in the circumstances, particularly as the recording has the feel of a record of a staged performance. My only reservation regarding this interesting and informative project is that a combination of the recording quality and the standard of the playing suggests a good amateur performance rather than a polished professional one. Nevertheless, this CD opens an interesting window on an unfamiliar Baroque genre, and adds another dimension to our understanding of the enigmatic and prolific Geminiani.

D. James Ross


The Baroque Violin and Viola

A fifty-lesson course, volumes I & II
Walter Reiter
Oxford University Press, 2020
ISBN 978-0-19-092270-2 (vol. 1) 978-0-19-752512-8 (vol. 2) £29.99 each (paperback; hardback available)

When Walter Reiter and I discussed his plans to write a book on how to play the baroque violin, I had absolutely no idea of the gargantuan scheme he had hatched! 50 lessons over 600 pages, from making sure that you’re holding the instrument comfortably, and understanding how different bow pressures and speeds impact the sound you make, to a detailed analysis of dozens of pieces and hints on how to play them in a style that the composer would have recognised, from Fontana to Bach with every conceivable bass in between thoroughly dealt with. While the first volume predominantly explores all of the technical sides of the beast, the second gives almost bar-by-bar advice on how to play it, with excellent explanations of why a particular approach should be taken to certain figures. Throughout, there are 118 exercises that force you to think about these things for yourself. As well as the impressive books themselves, there is a dedicated website from which almost all of the music can be downloaded, along with video demonstrations from Walter, all of which enhances an already impressive package.

This project has clearly been a labour of love and I congratulate Walter on a fantastic achievement. If I was starting out again and felt I perhaps should have kept up my violin playing, this would absolutely be my constant companion. I recommend it without the slightest hesitation to anyone embarking on a musical career!

Brian Clark


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


Vivaldi: 12 Concerti Di Parigi

Venise – Vivaldi – Versailles No. 3
Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal, Stefan Plewniak
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS065

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Ten of the twelve concerti in this Paris manuscript are known from other sources, suggesting that the manuscript was drawn up at relatively short notice as a presentation piece for a potential patron. The set is associated with a visit to Trieste by the Austrian Emperor Charles VI, in whose retinue was the keen amateur violinist Franz Stephan, who seems to have acquired the set. This perhaps explains why they are all ‘ripieni’ concerti, spotlighting the whole ensemble rather than a soloist. The subsequent enormous popularity of Vivaldi’s music in France can hardly be put down to these concerti, as they lack the sparkle and originality of several of the master’s other manuscripts and publications. Plewniak and his orchestral forces seem determined to make up for the risk of any musical mundanity with the sheer energy of their performance – however, this seems frequently to err on the side of aggression. Each energetic track is preceded by what sounds like a sharp intake of breath from all concerned, while the percussive attack on the stringed instruments is given further edge by some very choppy guitar playing. It is a pity that this element of aggression is allowed to creep into these performances, as many of the more relaxed movements are lyrically and tastefully presented. I don’t want to sound too unenthusiastic about this latest in a series of thought-provoking recordings to emanate from the Palace of Versailles, but at the same time it seems part of a fashion of ‘overplaying’ Vivaldi, when often his music should be allowed to speak more for itself.

D. James Ross


Schubert: Complete Symphonies & Fragments

L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg
277:25 (4 CDs in a double jewel box)
cpo 555 228-2

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Any project to record the complete Schubert symphonies is a challenge. He is famously the composer of an ‘unfinished’ symphony, but in fact Schubert was a serial ‘unfinisher’ of symphonic material, and even the total number and indeed the numbering of his complete symphonies are contested. In the early 1980s, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields recorded Schubert’s ‘10 Symphonies’, including impressive reconstructions by Brian Newbold using the surviving fragments. Subsequently, a number of period instrument ensembles have settled for the eight complete symphonies. The present recording takes an alternative approach, presenting the eight complete symphonies – renumbered so that the ‘Unfinished’ is now number 7 and the ‘Great’ is number 8 – as well as all the related surviving fragments and overtures. Some of these, such as D729 are substantial, in essence, a fair proportion of two movements, whereas others D74A are tiny, coming in in the middle of the action and then cut short. There is a definite academic interest in hearing any orchestral sketches Schubert left behind, and once you are prepared for the shock of a section cutting off in mid-flow, they do also make interesting listening. Besides, you can always select only the complete symphonies to listen to if that is what you want. These are live recordings, with some retakes added later, and have all the excitement of the concert performance about them. Just occasionally there are tuning issues, fluffs, and some extraneous noises, but nothing to interfere with the overall enjoyment. Michi Gaigg’s direction finds the magic in even the slightest of fragments, and she and her forces rise well to the challenge and scale of the later symphonies. She also has an unerring instinct for tempo, and has an excellent line-up of woodwind principals to take full advantage of Schubert’s famously rewarding woodwind solos. I am not sure how often I will be listening to the fragments, but these definitely do inform what I think are excellent accounts of the complete symphonies.

D. James Ross


Locatelli: Sei Concerti a Quattro op. 7

Ensemble Baroque “Carlo Antonio Marino”, Natale Arnoldi
Tactus TC 691203

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By the time Locatelli published his opus 7 set of Concerti a Quatro in 1741 he was an established musician of European status living in Amsterdam, but having travelled widely throughout the continent. What is perhaps most striking is that although now of mature years, the composer was still experimenting with style and form, combining the rigours of counterpoint with the more gentle aspects of the galant style. The resulting compositions have a delightful freshness, which both look back at the music of the first half of the 18th century, but also anticipate mid-century developments which would come into fruition with the Mannheim school. The ensemble match the freshness of Locatelli’s compositions with a lovely spontaneity of performance, and some engaging incidental ornamentation. Hearing these vibrant accounts, it is surprising that Locatelli’s opus 7 concertos weren’t more successful as a publication. Perhaps the composer had left it too long since his previous publication, and the modest number of six pieces may also have put people off. It is surprising though that Locatelli’s public seemed unable to appreciate how these pieces simultaneously acknowledged the past and pointed to the future.

D. James Ross


Concertos pour violon

The beginnings of the violin concerto in France
Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
Audax Records ADX13782

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Don’t let the disc’s title fool you into thinking that this repertoire is in any sense less than fully-formed. The names of Leclair and Corrette should inspire some confidence (as should that of the principal soloist and his ensemble) and their colleagues are not so very far behind.

Inevitably, the Italian concerto concept was viewed in France with no little suspicion, but determined and talented composers and the need for material to play at the increasingly popular public concerts (where operatic extracts were not permitted) combined to produce a body of accomplished music, from which we hear well-chosen highlights (though always complete works).

If the Leclair (world première recording, as is the Exaudet – both in E flat, curiously) is the stand-out, I also greatly enjoyed the Concerto in A by Jean-Baptiste Quentin. This is more of a sonata da chiesa with a very florid top line, though the opening contrapuntal largo is really lovely. The strong stylistic contrast of the concluding Corrette concerto comique is a brilliant piece of programming.

To be sure, there are moments when the influence of Corelli and Vivaldi is all too apparent, but that is also true in Bach and Handel. And the playing – chamber-scale forces – is absolutely first-class in every respect. This will not surprise those familiar with Ensemble Diderot’s discography.

The booklet essay (in English, French, German & Japanese) actually tells us about the music (a welcome change) as well as its context, though there is no information about the players beyond their names. But the ensemble’s website will tell you all you need to know.

David Hansell


Au goût Parisien

Haydn 2032, vol. 11
Kamerorchester Basel, Giovanni Antonini
Alpha Classics Alpha 688

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One of the greatest pleasures of my current reviewing activities is the arrival of a new CD in Alpha’s Haydn 2032 series. In this cycle, Giovanni Antonini is leading either his own Il Giardino Armonico or the Kammerorchester Basel through an intégrale of the composer’s symphonies scheduled for completion in time for the 300th anniversary of his death in 2032. The performances to date have been notable for the happy alternation of dynamic energy and subtly delicate colouring Antonini brings to the works, qualities enhanced by the conductor’s unusually acute ear for orchestral balance.

Not unexpectedly these features are again to the fore in the latest issue.  Unlike most of the previously issued recordings that also either introduced works by Haydn’s contemporaries or non-symphonic works by the composer, this concerns itself solely with four of his symphonies composed over a period of some twenty years. The title given to the disc requires little explanation as to the inclusion of Symphonies  82 in C, ‘L’Ours’ [the Bear] and 87 in A since they are respectively the first and last of the set Haydn composed in 1785 and 1786 as the result of a commission from the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris, at the time one of the oldest and most esteemed concert giving organisations in Europe. The inclusion of Symphonies 2 in C and 24 in D as being in the ‘Parisien taste’ is not so obvious, but explained by the fact that the first was the first Haydn symphony to be printed in Paris, while anecdotal evidence suggests that the D-major was almost certainly the first to be performed at the Concert de la Loge (in 1773).

The orchestra of Concert de la Loge was far larger than any for which Haydn had previously written, boasting some 40 violins and ten double basses. So it is hardly surprising he kicked off the sextet of symphonies for  the organisation with one of his grandest ceremonial C-major symphonies, a work sadly compromised by the inappropriate nickname given it in the 19th century. That may also account for the choice of modern-instrument Kammerorchester Basel for this issue, since although not as well-proportioned as the forces listed above it here boasts a handsomely-sized string section that, as usual, plays for Antonini with minimum vibrato. The opening of the Vivace, replete with thundering timpani and blazing brass, has an electrifying, visceral excitement that barely lets up throughout the movement, while in the finale the heavy drone dance that inspired the work’s nickname is played with such unbuttoned, bucolic fervour as to put the sedate reputation of the Swiss at risk. By contrast, the dance-like rhythms of the subject of the variations that form the Allegretto second movement are given the lightest of textures, while the Menuet has a trio that is one of several passages that allow the outstanding wind players of the Basel orchestra to shine.

The A-Major Symphony is more modestly scored without trumpets and drums, its opening Vivace articulated with a pointed rhythmic verve that brings to mind the opera house, its secondary idea another passage of the finest filigree texture. The following Adagio is one of the rare places where I differ from Antonini’s idea of tempo, being taken excessively slowly, but it is impossible to deny the beauty of the solo oboe’s love song or indeed the translucent concertante writing for the Harmoniemusik. The finale is a superb movement, again bristling with good-humoured vitality but allowing for momentary darker thoughts in the contrapuntal development.

The two symphonies from the early 1760s are much slighter, no. 2 having only three brief movements and being reminiscent of mid-century Italian opera overtures of composers such as Jommelli. The D-Major is primarily notable for its beguiling Adagio, a cantabile movement that is in effect a long-breathed love song for flute, here played with affectionate sensitivity. In sum, this is a splendid addition to a cycle distinguished above all by its vivid, life-enhancing spontaneity. 

Brian Robins


The Proust Album

Shana Diluka piano, with Nathalie Dessay soprano, Pierre Fouchenneret violin, Guillaume Galliene speaker, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, Hervé Niquet
Warner Classics 0190296676253

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There is nothing either ‘Early Music’ or HIP here, but an important aspect of the EM movement has been the research and revival of repertoire that is forgotten/unknown yet worthwhile and it is in that spirit that we give this Proust-themed (ie music he liked) miscellany a brief notice. Reynaldo Hahn’s piano concerto was a welcome surprise, Wagner’s tiny Elegy (solo piano, as is most of the programme) intriguing, and the world premiere recording of Richard Strauss’s elaborately textured Nocturno should draw deserved attention to this relatively recent discovery.

The main essay (in French, English and German) stays on the right side of the informative/philosophical border though there is nothing about the artists. But if you feel like a wander away from your normal HIP path, there is much to enjoy here.

David Hansell