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Briefly Noted: Faust Channels Locatelli

available at Amazon
P. Locatelli, Violin Concertos / Concerti Grossi, I. Faust, Il Giardino Armonico, G. Antonini

(released on August 25, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902398 | 68'22"
If you've heard of Pietro Locatelli, it is likely as part of a list of other 18th-century violinist-composers in the mold of Corelli and Vivaldi: one of those Italian -i names. At most, early music groups will include a Locatelli piece along with more famous composers in a program from time to time. So be prepared to be wowed when you take in the latest disc from Il Giardino Armonico and the mesmerizing violinist Isabelle Faust, which is devoted entirely to the works of this under-played composer. He was born in Bergamo in 1695, but his peregrinations took him from Rome, where he trained, throughout Italy and Germany and eventually to Amsterdam, where he died in 1764.

This recording features two of Locatelli's concerti grossi, including the intriguing and intensely introspective Op. 7, no. 6, given the subtitle "Il pianto d'Arianna." Likely a sort of programmatic setting of an unknown text about the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus, it is a sort of quasi-operatic instrumental drama: conductor Giovanni Antonini compares its structure to that of Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna for clues to each movement's meaning. Broken into ten movements, the first five, all quite short and featuring turbulent contrasts, are joined together here in a single track. The ensemble's lead violinist, Stefano Barneschi, takes the second solo violin parts under Faust in this and the less noteworthy Op. 1, no. 11, with opulent results.

While the concerti grossi emphasize Locatelli's melodic invention and musicality, two solo violin concerti showcase his other compositional side, the virtuosic exploits of a true showman. Locatelli ornamented his solo concertos with astounding cadenzas, each of which he gave the title of Capriccio. These Capricci, twenty-four in number, are an important forerunner of and likely influence on Paganini's 24 Caprices. Faust is magical in the insane runs of whistle-tone harmonics in the Capriccio from the first movement of Op. 3, no. 11. Likewise, she somehow navigates the perilous extended positions in the Capriccio for the third movement, so high in range that it reminds one of the anecdote that Locatelli once stunned a canary off its perch with his sound. Melodically these pieces are often as dull as a Hanon exercise, but the facility of the playing is nothing less than amazing. Locatelli also often marked a fermata in places where the soloist was meant to improvise, and here Faust plays written-out cadenzas by Godefridus Domenicus Reber from an edition of 1743.

As Faust puts it in her booklet essay on the solo concertos, these excessive cadenzas "are of such great technical difficulty that Locatelli expressly left it up to the performer whether to play them or not. He was obviously aware that not every violinist’s hand could master these cadenzas." Fortunately with Faust, her hands are up to the challenge. The tender Pastorale movement from another concerto grosso, Op. 1, no. 8, serves as an encore to cool down the strings.

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