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Francesco GEMINIANI (1687–1762)
Concerto grosso in D minor, H143 ‘La Folia’ after Arcangelo Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op 5, No 12 [11:30]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678–1741)
Violin Concerto in D, RV211 [14:11]
Violin Concerto in E-flat, RV257 [10:55]
Violin Concerto in B minor, RV386 [11:53]
Violin Concerto in B-flat, RV583: II. Andante [3:55]
Nicola Benedetti (Gariel Stradivarius violin, 1717)
Benedetti Baroque Orchestra
rec. Battersea Arts Centre, London, 17–20 December 2020
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
DECCA 4851891 [52:24]

Is this as much a surprise as I think, or have I missed something? Here’s Nicola Benedetti, not especially noted for playing baroque repertoire on a baroque violin and leading an ensemble, bearing her name, of distinguished baroque performers. She made an album entitled Italia a decade ago, music by Vivaldi, Tartini and Veracini, but that was with a modern-instrument ensemble, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, albeit that she used a baroque bow. Dominy Clements made that a Recording of the Month (4764342 – review). Does her foray into the period-instrument world work?

The performers bring the house down with the opening concerto, Geminiani’s virtuoso adaptation of Corelli’s ‘La Folia’ sonata, part of his collection of concerti grossi adaptations of the master’s own Op.5 set. It certainly takes off very powerfully in this new recording. I did wonder if it wasn’t a little too virtuosic, but that’s really the point of these Geminiani concertos, designed for the composer to make a mark as a violinist; not for nothing did Tartini describe him as furibondo. This music, based on the supposedly Spanish melody ‘La Folia’, or ‘Les folies d’Espagne’, which most baroque composers worth their salt had a go at, is well suited to fast and furious interpretation.

In fact, comparison reveals that Benedetti and her orchestra are not out to break the speed record in this work. Established Geminiani performers auch as the Purcell Quartet and Purcell Band actually bring it off noticeably faster (Hyperion Helios CDH55234, mid-price CD – review – or budget-price download from Hyperion), while Ensemble 415 with Chiara Banchini take only slightly longer (Outhere Rewind REW521, mid-price). My favourite set of the complete Geminiani concertos after Corelli, from the Academy of Ancient Music and Andrew Manze, formerly on 2 CDs, is now download only (Harmonia Mundi HMU907261.62). They take around the same time for ‘La Folia’ as Benedetti and her team, and the playing is just as virtuosic, but just a little less inclined to be over-emphatic – that’s at least partly due to the recording placing the ensemble further back than the new Decca.

Manze leaves us with all guns blazing just as intensely as Benedetti, but he warms up to the crescendo more gradually where the new recording blazes from the start. If Benedetti tempts you to go for the whole set, there’s no better recording than the Harmonia Mundi; you should be able to find it in lossless sound for around 15. After that, you might wish to try, for example, his Op.3 concertos, recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music on a mid-price Decca L’Oiseau Lyre reissue – review. Nothing else is quite as much an earworm as ‘La Folia’, but it’s all a very attractive reminder that Geminiani was once spoken of alongside Corelli and Handel.

The three-and-a-bit Vivaldi concertos (why not the whole of RV583?) also receive forceful performances. It’s no surprise to find Benedetti writing in the notes that it was Andrea Marcon that tempted her into the world of the baroque concerto. His own recordings with the Venice Baroque Orchestra are also noted for their colour, variety and intensity.

Marcon recorded RV211 with Giuliano Carmignola as soloist on Sony SK51352, part of a programme occupied mostly by the Four Seasons. Mercifully, Benedetti has chosen to launch into Vivaldi with much less well-known fare than the Four Seasons, having included ‘Summer’ on the Italia album. It’s unfair to compare her first period-instrument recording with the more established Carmignola and Marcon, though that album, too, was comparatively early (recorded in or around 2000), but their performance of this concerto is a much more subtle and varied affair, with intensity blended with less fervent moments. I listened to it as streamed in 16-bit sound, so like for like with the new Decca, and the more distant placement of the performers adds to my preference for the Sony – if only one didn’t have to have it with yet another recording of The Four Seasons.

That’s possible to avoid if you choose La Serenissima and Adrian Chandler on their album The French Connection, a miscellaneous programme of concertos for violin, flute and bassoon, rounded off by a slightly more staid but varied and very enjoyable performance of RV211 (AV2178 – review).

The other two concertos on the new recording receive rather more sensitive treatment. RV257 recently featured on a Pentatone recording of Vivaldi violin concertos transcribed for flute solo, from Bolette Roed (recorders) and Arte dei Suonatori (PTC5186875). That comes with yet another Four Seasons, albeit arranged and interwoven with other concertos season by season. As I wrote in my recent survey of Baroque music, these arrangements work very well indeed; after all, Vivaldi himself often specified the violin or oboe as alternative solo instruments, and from the oboe to another wind instrument is no great distance. The performances are first-rate, from both Bolette Roed and Arte dei Suonatori; the whole is very enjoyable, and not just as a novelty one-off. Given that Vivaldi on the recorder is inevitably going to sound gentler, though by no means feeble, I nevertheless thought Benedetti’s Vivaldi much more amenable in this concerto than in her recording of RV211.

RV386, another late concerto, is again Carmignola territory; his is the only other recording that I can find, available on a single album (Sony SK87733) or on a 3-hour set (G010001402412D) or on a 7-hour ‘complete’ alternative (88875051512), all download only. The single download is unduly expensive, so there’s a good case for obtaining one of the larger sets – much less expensive pro rata, though none include a booklet. In RV386, too, while the Sony recording offers a valuable set of these late works, Benedetti is more in tune with the sheer musicality of the music than with the demonstration of virtuosity. For one thing, I listened at a lower volume setting, and that helped to make Benedetti’s performances more amenable.

The supporting team is crammed with the names of accomplished baroque musicians, and the recording, if a little too forward for my liking, is otherwise good.

It’s a little disappointing for Decca to be offering a full-price new release with less than an hour’s music, when there’s plenty more Vivaldi that could have filled it. Having treated us to a rip-roaring Geminiani ‘La Folia’ at the outset, they could have rounded off the programme with Vivaldi’s own variations on that theme, RV63, though there are several fine recordings of that (Purcell Quartet, Hyperion Helios CDH55231, Archive CD or budget-price download from Hyperion) or Apollo’s Fire (Avie AV2211 – review).

Overall, while this is an impressive first album for Nicola Benedetti’s new baroque persona, especially if you like your baroque concertos to sound very intense, I have to admit that I was relieved to turn to the performances by Andrew Manze in Geminiani and from Carmignola with Marcon and Adrian Chandler in Vivaldi for even greater insight into this music. RV257 and RV386 and the andante second movement from RV583 which rounds off the new programme do provide a degree more tranquillity, but that andante is lighter still as performed by Carmignola and Marcon, who offer the complete concerto (Concerto Veneziano, DG Archiv E4748952, download only).

Booklets for such releases have tended to become something of a personality cult in recent years, but, while there are plenty of photographs of Nicola Benedetti, she also contributes some worthwhile notes. It’s illuminating that she writes of ‘plunging’ or ‘jumping into’ the music. She is certainly not offering the ‘light fare’ that she believes many people assume the baroque repertoire to consist of.

Mostly intense performances, then, that will find many admirers, but alternative recordings offer greater variety.

Brian Wilson

Benedetti Baroque Orchestra:

Kati Debretzeni, Jane Gordon (violin I)
Matthew Truscott, Michael Gurevich (violin I)
Louise Hogan, Rebecca Jones (viola)
Jonathan Byers, Sarah Macmahon (cello)
Nikita Naumov (double bass)
Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
Steven Devine (harpsichord)

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