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The Rise of the North Italian Violin Concerto: 1690-1740.
Volume One: The Dawn of the Virtuoso
Francesco NAVARA (fl.1695-1699)

Sinfonia/Sonata à 5 in C [5:37]

Laudate pueri Dominum: à voce sola et 5 strumenti, RV Anh.30 [19:21]
Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690)

3 Balletti e Correnti à 5, from Op.16 (1691)
Balletto II in G [0:42]
Corrente II in G [1:23]
Ballatto IV in E [1:52]
Corrente IV in E [1:06]
Balletto VI in F [1:57]
Corrente VI in F [0:34]
Francesco NAVARA (fl.1695-1699)

Sinfonia/Sonata à 5 in A (1697) [5:43]
Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751)

Concerto IV in G, Op. 2/8 (1700) [5:24]
Giuseppe VALENTINI (c.1680-c.1760)

Concerto XI à 6, con quattro violini obligati, Op.7 (1710) [17:32] *
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

Concerto III, con violino solo obligato in G, Op.3, RV310 (1711) [6:46]
Concerto X, con quattro violini e violoncello obligato, Op.3, RV 580 (1711) [9:00]
La Serenissima: Adrian Chandler (violin, director); Sarah Moffatt, Simon Kodurand, Jane Gordon, George Crawford, Emilia Benjamin (violin); Peter Collyer (alto viola); Alfonso Leal, Katherine McGillivray (tenor viola); Gareth Deats (violoncello); Peter McCarthy (double bass); Eligio Quinteiro (theorbo, baroque guitar); Robert Howarth (harpsichord, organ); Mhairi Lawson (soprano)
rec. Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Salehurst, East Sussex, February 27-March 1 2006; * Phoenix Sound, Pinewood Studios, June 25, 2006
AVIE AV 2106 [77:51]

Classical writers declared the threefold aim of poetry to be to teach (docere), to move/persuade (movere) and to please (delectare). Here’s a CD that very successfully does all three – a CD which has an explicit educational purpose, but which simultaneously moves and delights.

Adrian Chandler, leader of that excellent group La Serenissima, currently holds a three-year fellowship at Southampton University, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to study the growth of the violin concerto in Northern Italy. As part of the project he will produce three programmes for Avie records, of which this is the first. It looks at the emergence of music for the violin family, the influence of vocal models on violin style and the growing centrality of the dominant soloist. The second programme is intended to focus on Vivaldi’s role in the development of the violin concerto, considering matters such as his use of the cadenza and the influence of his concertos and his operas on one another. Programme three will examine the legacy of Vivaldi’s work and the development of the classical orchestra.

Volume One mixes familiar with unfamiliar and the results are, indeed, both thoroughly entertaining and painlessly instructive. Chandler’s booklet notes discuss the huge increase in the publication of music for the violin in the first half of the seventeenth century, and the way in which the emergence, by mid-century, of the trio sonata and the four/five part operatic sinfonia in turn encouraged the development of the ensemble sonata, represented here in the work of Giovanni Legrenzi, with whom the young Vivaldi probably studied. Legrenzi, whose career as organist and composer took him to many of the cities of northern Italy prior to his appointment as maestro di capella at St. Mark’s in Venice in 1685, is represented here by a selection of pieces from a posthumously published collection which appeared in 1691. Written for a five-part ensemble made up of two violins, alto violin, tenor viola and cello, with harpsichord continuo, these are attractive dance movements, played with engaged (and engaging) exuberance by La Serenissima.

The same instrumental forces are employed in the two pieces by Francesco Navara, though the violins are given greater prominence, the writing for them fairly described by Chandler as "imposing" and "akin to the Roman trio sonata which had recently become fleshed out with added viola parts, the concerto grosso prototype". Little seems to be known about Navara, who was appointed maestro di capello at Mantua in 1695. The two sinfonias heard here are taken from manuscripts which survive in the library of Durham Cathedral. I don’t remember ever encountering Navara’s music before; both of these two pieces (it is unclear whether we should refer to them as sinfonias or sonatas) are in four movements, alternate slow and fast. Each begins with an expressive sostenuto and it is perhaps in the slow movements that they are at their most attractive, although the allegro movements are pleasantly spritely too. While it would be overstating things to call Navara a significant discovery, I am certainly grateful to Chandler and his band for effecting the introduction.

Tomaso Albinoni was an important north Italian figure so far as the evolution of the three-movement concerto form was concerned – in, for example, the Sinfonie e concerti à cinque which made up his Op.2 of 1700 and Concerti à cinque of 1707 as well as in his oboe concertos (Op.7 in 1717, Op.9 in 1722). Chandler and la Serenissima give us the eighth concerto from the Opus 2 set, which opens with a brief but incisively articulated allegro and closes with a second allegro, which has some pleasant imitative passages, these two movements framing a short (barely over the minute) adagio which is little more than a succession of chords. This is not especially brilliant or memorable music, but of considerable historical importance in terms of the role it played in establishing the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) form as something like the norm for the concerto.

Other conceptions of the concerto, naturally enough, did not disappear all at once. Amongst the works collected in the Opus 7 (1710) of the Florentine Giuseppe Valentini’s (who was an able painter and poet as well as a composer) are works for several combinations of instruments – from solo violin to cello and violin, two violins or, as in the case, of the eleventh in the set, played here, for four violins. Valentini’s writing demands altogether more technical virtuosity than is to be heard in most preceding works for violins and there is a flamboyance, a cultivation of the harmonically unexpected, which seems to open up new possibilities for the composer of concertos. This concerto for four violins is in five movements, though Valentini did, elsewhere in the set, also employ the three-movement form (as in the sixth concerto). The concerto, perhaps Valentini’s most famous work, has been recorded before – e.g. by Chiara Banchini and Ensemble 415 on Zig Zag Territoires 20801 – but this performance need fear no comparisons, vivacious and suitably virtuosic as it is, colourful in textures and compelling in its rhythms.

The arc of development mapped out in this first volume finds its fulfilment in the work of Vivaldi. It is represented here by two of the twelve concertos which make up L’estro armonico of 1711. Here, of course, we move into more generally familiar territory. Michael Talbot describes L’estro armonico as "perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century" – its only serious rival for such a position being Corelli’s opus 6 set (1714). In the two concertos recorded here – both, of course, in the three-movement form – there is a certainty of musical conception and execution not to be found (at least not consistently) in any of the preceding works on the disc – which isn’t to say that they are without interest or incapable of giving the listener their fair share of both instruction and pleasure. But these works by Vivaldi make a fitting climax, give us a clear and triumphant sense that a distinctive musical genre has truly found its identity. The vigour and concentration of rhythm in Vivaldi’s outer movements and the subtle hauntings of the slow movements have a musical wholeness, a perfection of design, in which contrast and complement both play their roles, beyond anything that Navara, Legrenzi, Albinoni or Valentini can give us. And here they get vivacious performances, energetic without ever feeling rushed, the continuo work wonderfully supportive, the solo playing a delight, not least in the interplay of the four concertino violins in the tenth concerto.

The CD also comes with a kind of bonus in the form of a performance by Mhairi Lawson of a setting Psalm 112 – Latin text and English translation are provided – by an anonymous composer, taken from one of the manuscripts of sacred works, now in the Biblioteca Nazionale, which the young Vivaldi seems to have acquired for study purposes. The manuscript in question contains thirteen works, all in the same hand, which musicologists have attributed to a single composer, referred to as Composer X, probably a Venetian born around 1650. The manuscript includes five Psalm settings for soprano and strings; the one recorded here is attractively florid. After a short but shapely Sinfonia, Lawson gives a subtly-coloured performance, her interpretation not without that strong sense of the dramatic which she brings to many of her performances. It is a good enough performance of an interesting piece to justify its presence on the CD purely for its own sake, but, in this context, it also serves as a reminder of how vocal style fed into the evolution of Venetian writing for the solo violin.
So, prepare to be instructed and moved. And delighted.

Glyn Pursglove


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