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Briefly Noted: Alessandrini's Harmonic Fury

available at Amazon
Vivaldi/Bach, L'estro armonico, Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini

(released on March 25, 2022)
Naïve OP 7367 | 158'06"
Antonio Vivaldi's L’estro armonico was a shot across the bow of musical Europe, so to speak. Vivaldi published this collection, a set of twelve string concertos he called his Op. 3, in Amsterdam in 1711. Following upon two sets of sonatas, they were the first concertos published by the Venetian composer, identified by Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot as "perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century." Scholars have shown that Vivaldi composed some of these works specifically for the publication, while others had been composed earlier. The ensemble for which Vivaldi wrote them, the orchestra of orphaned girls at the Ospedale della Pietà, was becoming widely known. Vivaldi dedicated the set to Ferdinando de' Medici, a frequent visitor to Venice and a financial supporter of the orphanage.

Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have made a new, lean recording of L'estro armonico, performing the seven instrumental parts of the score essentially one on a part. In a pleasing pairing, this new 2-CD set also includes performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's transcriptions of six of the twelve concertos. Bach came into contact with L'estro armonico in 1713 or 1714, shortly after its publication, because his employer, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, returned from a stay in the Netherlands with a copy of the score. Bach made five of these transcriptions while he held the post in Weimar, adapting three of the solo violin concertos for harpsichord and two of the double-violin concertos for organ.

It has to be said that not every one of the concertos in the Vivaldi set is equally brilliant. For the most part, Bach picked the most interesting ones to transcribe. Perhaps the best is No. 10, one of the concertos for four violins, which Bach realized as a concerto for four harpsichords in the late 1720s or early 1730s when he held the cantor position in Leipzig. Alessandrini is joined by three other Italian harpsichordists (Andrea Buccarella, Salvatore Carchiolo, and Ignazio Schifani) for a fine rendition of this famous piece. Alessandrini plays the three solo harpsichord arrangements himself, ably enough, but perhaps he could have spread the wealth with his colleagues. As Alessandrini observes in his program note, these are not mere transcriptions, as Bach reworked the music to the keyboard idiom and even made structural changes, to enhance the counterpoint, for example.

Each component of Concerto Italiano's performances in the Vivaldi pieces is in prime form, with admirable parity among the four violinists and their lower-string counterparts (recorded at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome in December 2020). One of the great concertos that Bach did not transcribe is the E minor for four violins, which receives an exemplary performance in this recording. Among the other high points are the two organ transcriptions made by Bach, played with fleet fluency by Lorenzo Ghielmi on the Mascioni organ in the parish church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Morbio, Switzerland. Built in 2001 but in the Italian Baroque style, the instrument sounds authentic, but without the clutzy action of a historical organ. Alessandrini notes that all performances are tuned to the high Classical pitch used in Venice, including the Bach pieces, which is more or less at modern pitch.

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