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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
La Follia: Six Sonatas, Op.5 (1700):-
Sonata in g minor, Op.5/12 (‘La Follia’) [10:13]
Sonata in g minor, Op.5/7 [10:14]
Sonata in C, Op.5/9 [10:39]
Sonata in G, Op.5/11 [12:09]
Sonata in g minor, Op.5/8 [14:14]
Sonata in G, Op.5/10 [9:04]
Michala Petri (recorder)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
rec. Garnisonskirchen, Copenhagen, Denmark, 5-8 May 2014. DDD/DSD
OUR RECORDINGS SACD 6.220610 [66:22]

Strictly speaking I don’t have a benchmark for this recording because I haven’t heard the other recording which employs the flute rather than the prescribed violin (Eloquentia EL1341).

The recent Linn SACD and 24-bit download in their complete series of Corelli recordings by the Avison Ensemble (CKD412, the whole of Op.5, 2 SACDs) employs the original scoring of violin plus continuo and interprets ‘continuo’ to mean not just the harpsichord but swaps the keyboard with an organ and adds a cello, archlute or guitar for the sake of variety. I could find very little to criticise in that Linn release – review – especially as it contains all twelve of the Op.5 sonatas yet sells for the price of a single SACD or download, the latter format available from Linn or Hyperion (mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless, with pdf booklet, in both cases).

That means that the Linn recording is pretty hard to beat and there are two other inexpensive recordings to consider, both from Hyperion: Convivium perform all twelve sonatas on a 2-for-1 Dyad (CDD22047), employing violin, cello and harpsichord or organ, and the Purcell Quartet perform Op.5/3, 11 and 12 together with Op.1/9, Op.2/4 and 12, Op.3/12 and Op.4/3 on budget-price Helios CDH55240 – review – employing violin or viola da gamba with harpsichord and cello continuo in a cross-section of Corelli’s music.

Corelli’s title page states that these are Sonate a violino e violone ˛ cembalo and it’s the interpretation of that word ˛ that determines whether one or two continuo instruments are employed. I discussed this issue some time ago in reviewing another fine recording of Op.5, from Franšois Fernandez and Glenn Wilson – as it happens, exactly duplicating the OUR recording with Nos. 7-12 (Naxos 8.557799 – review). In the very informative notes to that recording Glenn Wilson argues convincingly that ˛ means what it says – ‘or’ not ‘and/or’ – and his performance with Fernandez strengthens the case for a clean continuo line: I called it ‘fresh spring water’.

Sitting on the fence is a very uncomfortable position, but that’s what I’m going to do in this case regarding the continuo, because I’m on record as saying that I also greatly enjoyed the variety of the continuo on the Linn recording.

It’s the ‘fresh spring water’ approach to the continuo line that prevails on the new OUR recording and it’s very well provided by Mahan Esfahani, whose recent Hyperion recording of C.P.E. Bach has won such golden opinions (CDA67995). That doesn’t mean that Esfahani simply plays what it says on the page: as he explains in the booklet, he observes eighteenth-century practice in ornamenting the continuo – we have Geminiani’s edition of No.9 as an exemplar. He does so discreetly and achieves a degree of variety without making the harpsichord over-obtrusive.

The transcription of the violin part for the recorder, which involves changes of key throughout, also contributes to making the sound on the new album crystal clear. There’s plenty of evidence that the flute (recorder) or oboe was often substituted for the violin at this period – several Vivaldi and Albinoni concertos work very well either way – and the English publisher Walsh, who pirated some of Handel’s music for his Op.3 collection, issued a set of ‘SIX Solos for A FLUTE and A BASS By ARCHANGELO CORELLI Being The second part of his Fifth OPERA … The whole exactly Transposed and made fitt for A FLUTE and a A BASS with the approbation of severall Eminent Masters.’ The title page and three pages of Walsh’s score are reproduced in the booklet.

I’m not sure who Walsh’s ‘Eminent Masters’ were – it sounds like a bit of advertising puff, like the excessive use of upper case – but the practice of playing music intended for the violin in domestic surroundings on the recorder was common and it works well enough, especially with two performers whose co-operation is as well established as that of Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani.

By choosing just the second half of Op.5, Walsh was opting for the more overtly appealing music from the collection, consisting largely of dance-based movements. For that and many other reasons I very much enjoyed this recording but I shall not be making it my only choice for these sonatas.

Convivium and the Avison Ensemble work through the Op.5 sonatas in numerical order, though the former add Geminiani’s edition of No.9 as an appendix, thereby spoiling the climax of ending with No.12, the variations on La Fol(l)ia, a tune on which it was almost obligatory for any composer of the time to compose variations. If you want to explore some of these Hyperion have a recording by the Purcell Quartet of the Corelli plus compositions based on La Folia by Marais, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, C.P.E. Bach and Geminiani (CDA67035).

Petri and Esfahani – or their producer – chose to open rather than end the programme with No.12. There’s very little to choose between their performance and the others which I’ve mentioned: the Purcell Quartet, who also open their La Folia album with Op.5/12, are marginally faster, both there and on the Helios all-Corelli selection. Fernandez and Wilson and the Avison Ensemble, who both end with the fireworks of No.12, are quite considerably slower, but still fire on all cylinders, with no suggestion of sluggishness. Petri and Esfahani, at almost exactly the same tempo as Convivium, seem to have it just right.

It seems that Esfahani has had some influence on the choice of tempo: Petri has recorded Op.5/12 before, with Lars Hannibal, lute, also for OUR (6.220604, with Vitali, Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Tartini and Handel: Virtuoso Baroquereview) and the tempo chosen then was slightly slower.

Elsewhere some of their tempi are a little on the slow side – in every movement of No.7, for example, they are a little slower than Convivium and in all but one slower than the Avison Ensemble – without my ever feeling that they miss the dance quality of the music.

The recording is very good, as heard from the 2-channel SACD layer and very little inferior from the CD layer. The Linn SACDs sound fuller because of the different instruments involved. I’m pleased to see that OUR Recordings, like Linn, are remaining faithful to the SACD format; though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find dedicated SACD players at less than astronomical prices, some of the best blu-ray players such as the Cambridge Audio 752BD will get excellent results with SACDs, both in stereo and in multi-channel.

If you are looking for an SACD recording of these sonatas, the choice is between the new OUR and the Linn. If you prefer the flute to the violin and like a clean continuo line, Petri and Esfahani will do you proud. For the original violin versions, the Avison Ensemble and Convivium are very good: both vary the continuo and come in 2-for-1 format. If you want just a single CD of the original violin versions, the Purcell Quartet’s selection, with cello and harpsichord continuo, and Fernandez and Wilson (Nos. 7-12: harpsichord continuo only) are both at budget price. We’re really spoiled for choice: you won’t go wrong with any of these.

Brian Wilson