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
DECCA 4851891 [52:24]
There seems to come no end to the stream of recordings of music by Vivaldi. Apparently he speaks to the imagination of musicians and audiences alike. Long gone are the days that he was thought to have written the same concerto many times over. He is one of those composers to whom even performers who don't specialize in baroque repertoire, turn once in a while.
There has been much fuss about the forays into baroque music by Nicola Benedetti, which I found out when I searched the internet for her credentials. She has made quite a career with much later repertoire. I have to confess that I had never heard of her. The fact that some performer of her status is willing to play baroque music is not that surprising, but the fact that she is willing to do that according to the principles of historical performance practice certainly is. There was a time that violinists of the 'traditional' school looked down at specialists on the baroque violin, suggesting they were not good enough for the 'real thing'. There may be some who still hold that view but they are quickly losing ground. Right now, there are so many ensembles and orchestras playing on period instruments that it is impossible to stand by that prejudice.
This also explains why Nicola Benedetti had no problems collecting a group of specialists to accompany her on her journey through the music of Vivaldi. In the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra we find some household names, such as the violinists Kati Debretzeni and Matthew Truscott, the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the harpsichordist Steven Devine. For her first recording Benedetti selected three violin concertos from the more than 200 in the catalogue of Vivaldi's works. To date, not all of them are available on disc on period instruments. The complete recording on the label Na´ve, in its Vivaldi edition, is not finished yet.
As Vivaldi was a violinist himself, he exactly knew how to explore the violin's features. Some of these concertos were undoubtedly written for his own use, others for some of his pupils, in particular the girls in the Ospedale della PietÓ in Venice. They were highly skilled on several instruments, including the violin. However, these concertos are more than mere demonstrations of the skills of the composer or opportunities for the interpreter to show off. They include quite some expressive moments, and that goes especially for the slow movements.
It is clear from the fact that Benedetti collected specialists in baroque repertoire to support her, that she takes Vivaldi seriously. And that is how she plays. She does not only focus on the brilliant features of these concertos, even though these certainly come to the fore in these performances. There is plenty of lyricism, for instance in the opening movement of the Concerto in E flat, which is already indicated by the description as andante molto e quasi allegro. The second movement of the Concerto in D is played with a nice differentiation in tempo and dynamics. These are two essential elements, alongside articulation, of historical performance practice. These are also instrumental to make the music speak. I also noted with satisfaction that Benedetti exercises restraint in her insertion of cadenzas. She does not show off by making them too long or too virtuosic. That also comes to the fore in the choice of an andante from a further concerto by Vivaldi as a kind of 'encore' rather than a fast and virtuosic movement.
The programme opens with one of Geminiani's most famous concerti grossi, the one in which he arranges the last of Corelli's Op. 5 violin sonatas. It is certainly a token of the composer's admiration for his teacher, but also a clever exploration of the popularity of Corelli and of the genre of the concerto grosso in England, where his arrangements were printed. It receives an energetic performance here, and that emphasizes that this and other arrangements have to be taken seriously and can hold their ground in comparision with 'original' concerti grossi.
In the booklet, Nicola Benedetti writes about her journey towards the world of baroque music and period instruments, and the great help of the Italian harpsichordist and conductor Andrea Marcon. Unfortunately we don't get any details about her instrument. It is mentioned that she plays a Gariel Stradivarius violin. On the internet I found out that she plays it since 2012 - long before the time she turned to period instrument performances. That means that it is undoubtedly a modernized instrument. Several sources at the internet claim that she plays here on gut strings and uses a baroque bow. That's what the sound also seems to indicate. It was only at some moments, in fast passages and in high positions, that I thought to hear some features of 'modern' violin playing. Overall, it does not compromise my appreciation of this recording.
Nicola Bendetti is obviously a great player, and she seems to feel at home in this repertoire. It is to be hoped that she is going to continue her journey, and also explore some lesser-known repertoire. She ended her concert at this year's Edinburgh International Festival with a movement from a violin concerto by Tartini. I hope she is willing to explore his oeuvre, as we could do with good recordings of his violin concertos. She shows here that she has what it takes to bring such music to life.
Johan van Veen
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Marc Rochester ~ Dominy Clements