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I Violini d'Italia

available at Amazon
Italian Violin Sonatas, Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante (released on July 8, 2003)

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor, Andrew Manze, English Concert (released on November 9, 2004)
In the Baroque period, the treble sound was king: the castrato, the clarino trumpet, and especially the violin. The predominance of the latter went hand in hand with the superlative examples that were built in Cremona and other places in the 17th and 18th centuries. These are two excellent recordings, from the past couple years, of lesser-known works for violin from the the Baroque period, recorded by two of the reigning violin masters of HIP style. Both discs are bon-bons in the best sense: I can play them at home or in my office, and people who might be turned off by some of the sounds that come from my CD player ask me about the beautiful music I am playing. Fabio Biondi offers four sonatas by those followers of Corelli in the early 18th century (Geminiani, Tartini, Locatelli, Veracini) who are so often forgotten, plus a piece by Michele Mascitti that is probably better described as a suite, a set of instrumental movements that tell the story of Psyché. This piece, from 1714 and as delicate with pastel colors as a Watteau painting, is going to be the soundtrack for my class on the Rococo this year.

Biondi's playing is sensitive and virtuosic, with thrilling ornamentation, as on the repeated sections in the opening Adagio of Locatelli's D minor sonata (track 6). Three players from his group, Europa Galante, realize the continuo part, with fierce technical prowess of their own, as in the chattering "Badinage" (Banter) movement of the Mascitti. Besides Maurizio Naddeo's cello, a range of instruments -- Giangiacomo Pinardi on theorbo, Baroque guitar, or cittern and Sergio Ciomei on harpsichord, organ, gravicembalo, or clavichord -- allow the maximum diversity of color, for example, the muted greyness of "Du sommeil" (Sleepiness), again in the Mascitti suite.

Andrew Manze's fine disc includes six Vivaldi concerti, of the twelve, not all of which can be reconstructed, offered by the composer in a manuscript as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1728, during the monarch's official visit to Trieste. (Vivaldi is hot right now, with recent recordings by Andrea Marcon's Venice Baroque Orchestra, reviewed by Jens.) Concertos for the Emperor was mentioned on several "Best Of" lists for 2004 (sometimes eclipsed by Manze's gorgeous version of Biber's Rosary Sonatas with Richard Egarr), and it bears repeating that this recording indeed goes down easy. Manze's incisive tone is ultra-refined, so searingly pure that it makes Biondi's tendency toward expressive bends sound more exaggerated by comparison than it really is. The English Concert provides thrilling ripieni and perfectly tuned harmonies underneath their leader.

I have often wondered how many Vivaldi concerti Igor Stravinsky actually heard before he made his famous remark that Vivaldi had composed the same concerto 500 times. His ritornello themes do often sound cut from very similar cloth. Of six concerti on this disc, it surprises me that two ritornelli sound extremely close to famous ones Vivaldi used in the Four Seasons: the last movement of Concerto No. 2 (track 3) is almost like the Spring's first movement, and the third movement of Il favorito (track 15) is close to one of the fast ritornelli of the autumn concerto. The range of sounds, including the soft-light muting of the entire orchestra on L'Amoroso, does much to alleviate the dangerous sameness of Vivaldi's concerti, as do Manze's inventive and adventurous embellishments, including two rather striking cadenzas. Both of these soloists have recently made recordings of Mozart violin concerti -- Biondi released a set of three (no. 1 to 3) in April, and Manze did, too (no. 3 to 5), in January. I am hoping to review them together soon.

Virgin 7243 5 45588 2 5 (Biondi) / Harmonia Mondi 907332 (Manze)


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I never thought about it before but I seemed to have lost interest in violin music between 1750 and 1950.
And it is always interesting to hear Stravinsky denying his musical influences (see also Taruskin and native Russian music).

Two Vivaldi CDs to add to my wish list.

Charles T. Downey said...

Robert, thanks for the comment. Yes, I know what you mean about Taruskin.