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Per la Notte di Natale: Italian Christmas Concertos
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Concerto Grosso in g minor, Op.6/8 ‘Fatto per la Notte di Natale’ [14:15]
Giuseppe TORELLI (1658-1709)
Concerto Grosso in g minor, Op.8/6 ‘Concerto in forma di Pastorale per il Santissimo Natale’ [5:23]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concerto in E, ‘Il riposo’ ‘per il Santisssimo Natale’, RV270 [7:28]
Francesco MANFREDINI (1684-1762)
Concerto Grosso in C, Op.3/12 ‘Per il Santissimo Natale’ [7:55]
Pietro LOCATELLI (1695-1764)
Concerto Grosso in f minor, Op.1/8 ‘Per il Santo Natale’ [13:14]
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord)
rec. 13-15 January 2020, Garrison Church, Copenhagen. DDD.
Reviewed as streamed in 24/96 sound.
NAXOS 8.574264 [48:17]

I had very high hopes for this new release, though we were not short of recordings of the music composed by Italian composers for Christmas around the year 1700; Naxos themselves even had an earlier recording from Capella Istropolitana and Jaroslav Krček: Corelli, Torelli, Manfredini and Locatelli, as on the new release, plus music by Handel and Bach and two Vivaldi concertos, for flautino and flute (Op.10/1) (8.550567). That offers one significant advantage over the new recording – a playing time of 70 minutes against the rather mean 48 on the new recording.

The Corelli concerto is especially easy to find: if you want the whole Op.6 collection – and why not? – your best option is the Presto special 2-CD Archiv set from The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock, which I recently thought still a very strong contender, alongside a Hyperion twofer featuring Roy Goodman and the Brandenburg Consort – review. You may prefer the complete Corelli to a succession of similar-sounding ‘pastorale’ movements, largo or adagio, on the new recording.

Pinnock and his English Consort also ride to the rescue with the Corelli concerto presented alongside other concertos for Christmas on another Presto special Archiv reissue including music by Charpentier – two of the charming instrumental Noëls – Molter, Vivaldi, Sammartini, Handel and three ‘Polish’ concertos by Telemann (4352622). You’ll find my thoughts on that, and other collections of Christmas concertos in my review of a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi release from 2016.

With those other collections offering significantly more than 48 minutes, it needs more than the Naxos budget price to make the new album really special. Much hinges on how the opening Corelli concerto goes, in particular the pastoral finale – too fast and the spell is broken, too slow and the shepherds would never shake off their drowsy sleep, as they are bidden in a carol. Mortensen and his team are, in fact, very close to Pinnock’s ideal tempo here, and they share his use of period instruments. The years since the Pinnock recording have brought improvements even over The English Concert of 1987, and Concerto Copenhagen are among those who have benefited from the greater familiarity of using them.

They take the opening vivace-grave movement a shade faster, reducing our sense of expectation a little, but there’s no harm done, as it happens. And though on paper they are a shade slower in the allegro second movement, there’s a good case to be made for doing so.

Overall, however, I prefer this concerto with a little more get up and go. If you wish to stay with recordings in the lower price range, the older Krček album is worth considering: the playing is a little more rough and ready, but not objectionably so, and you get more bang for your buck in both senses. Unlike the period-instrument Concerto Copenhagen, Capella Istropolitana play on modern instruments, but they have a good sense of period style – nothing at all heavy about this or any of their other recordings that I have heard. Like the new recording, the older Naxos sells for around £7.50 on disc, but the download can be obtained in lossless sound for less than £4.

Alternatively, there’s a Chandos collection performed by Collegium 90 and Simon Standage, available from for £7 on CD and £7.99 as a lossless download. Apart from raising the perennial question why the download is more expensive than the CD, and noting that ‘recorded in 2007’ is misleading – that’s the date of reissue – there’s more variety on offer here because the concertos by Manfredini, Vivaldi and Corelli, as on the new Naxos, are interspersed with Christmas cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti and Telemann (CHAN0754). I thought that recording virtually self-recommending in December 2008 – but see review by Johan van Veen for a dissenting view.

The Corelli also appears on another older Naxos release: A Roman Christmas, where it’s performed by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Helmut Müller-Brühl in company with concertos by Stradella, Marcello and Albinoni and, as on the Chandos album, the Alessandro Scarlatti Cantata pastorale ‘O di Betlemme altera’ (with Maya Boog, soprano). I’m slightly less taken with this account of the Corelli than from Capella Istropolitana, but it’s still well worth considering for the couplings (8.551077).

Much the same comments apply to the Copenhagen recordings of the other concertos, all very well played, but sounding a little too comfortable. I very much enjoyed the performance of the Vivaldi Violin Concerto ‘Il Riposo’; I’d like to hear more of the soloist Fredrik From. Perhaps it’s his name (Danish for ‘pious’) that makes this performance reverent, but not over-reverent. He’s also first concertino violinist in the other concertos, one reason why the string playing throughout is one of the virtues of this recording.

I’m sorry to be slightly negative about the new release from performers whose recordings I usually enjoy. It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong about the performances – the playing is first-rate and the recording, as streamed in 24-bit sound is very good – but I prefer the slightly less accomplished but rather more vivacious, non-period performances on the earlier Naxos, and the CD-quality sound there – no 24-bit equivalent – is no detriment to enjoyment. Certainly, there’s not so much in it as to sway the issue.

Subscribers to the ever-valuable Naxos Music Library can compare the three Naxos recordings, the Pinnock Christmas collection and the Chandos: Mortensen here, Krček here, Müller-Brühl here, Pinnock here, and the earlier release of the Standage here. You can even compare the way in which Karajan smothers a collection of these concertos, including the Corelli, with the Berlin Philharmonic, taking an interminable 5:04 over the pastoral finale – here.

The new recording is certainly vastly better than the Karajan; I would have been more welcoming if there had not been such fine – and more generous – alternatives.

Brian Wilson

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