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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
DECCA 485 1891 [52:26]

The Benedetti Baroque Orchestra is made up of 11 players, excluding Nicola Benedetti herself, drawn from specialist early music ensembles. In a chatty booklet note, Benedetti suggests that, in selecting players whom she herself would direct, she was working “without the comfort of someone else’s vision or name”, but I suspect the sessions were not as dictatorial as that; the playing suggests a strong sense of communal involvement in the music, which is most vividly and excitingly displayed in Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso, adapted from Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op 5 No 12. This, itself, was based on “La Folia” which was originally a dance originating in Portugal during the late 15th century and which subsequently became popular in Spain where it was often accompanied by the mad strumming of a guitar. It was reputedly danced with such vigour and abandon, with the dancers making such a lot of noise as they performed it, that they seemed, in the words of one observer, “out of their minds”: the 15th century equivalent, it would seem, of a modern Rave. Nevertheless “La Folia”, albeit considerably more restrained both in movement and associated noise, seems to have swept Europe like any other dance craze; evidenced by the sheer number of composers who wrote Folias. In England John Gay (1685-1732) included one in The Beggar’s Opera, in France Lully and Marin Marais wrote works based on the “Folia” rhythm, as did the German C P E Bach, while in Italy it appears in works by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Corelli’s Variations on “La Folia” for violin was regarded as one of the most dazzling virtuoso pieces of violin solo writing of the time. It is said that Corelli himself told Geminiani of the “satisfaction he took in composing it and the value he set upon it”, and it was published on 1st January 1700. Geminiani’s arrangement of it as a Concerto Grosso was published in London a quarter of a century later. All that background information might not immediately seem relevant to a review of this performance, were it not for the fact that Benedetti and her musicians have obviously taken this to heart and present a performance which is as vigorous and utterly immersive as one imagines the original dance to have been, and with playing as robust and earthy as this, one has no doubts as to why the work became as popular as it did, blending dazzling instrumental virtuosity with a whole barrel-load of fun.

The bulk of the programme, however, is devoted to violin concertos by Vivaldi. Again, Benedetti chats away merrily in the booklet about how she has fallen in love with Vivaldi and how she learnt so much about the music from working with Andrea Marcon. I worry that she seems to think it necessary to apologise for her fondness for Vivaldi, hawking out the long-defunct nonsense about him being the “poorer, simpler cousin of the sophisticated German composer” (does anybody still subscribe to this arrant nonsense?), and even if she is anxious to stamp out any lingering vestiges of anti-Vivaldi sentiment amongst 21st century music lovers, her playing is powerful argument enough as to the sheer brilliant quality of the music to silence dissenting voices, for good and all.

Rant over (although please don’t get me started on the idiocy of lumping every type of music from the 17th and early 18th centuries together under the meaningless label of “Baroque”!); let’s get down to the music. That outstanding Vivaldi series emerging over the last 20 years or so from Na´ve has set the yardsticks in compelling performances of Vivaldi’s concertos, often without the presence of a star soloist, and with the three-and-bit concertos on this recording, we get the best of both worlds: strong, authoritative and vivid playing with an impeccable empathy with the style, an understanding of modern performance scholarship, and players who, as individuals, are wholly committed to the interpretative approach to the music, with a star violin soloist. And unlike that plethora of recordings of the most famous Vivaldi violin concertos (The Four Seasons), there is a real feeling of integration between the soloist and the ensemble. These are performances of an autonomous collective, rather than in support of an eminent individual.

The three Vivaldi concertos chosen for this programme have in common an assertiveness and a compulsive energy which these players lap up with alacrity. These are in-your-face performances, never holding back from a full-throated earthiness which gives them all a splendidly immersive feel. The “bit” of a concerto I referred to earlier, is the slow movement of the B flat Concerto Rv583, a concerto which, in its complete version, is scored for scordatura solo violin accompanied by two string orchestras. Here Benedetti luxuriates in the lyricism of Vivaldi’s writing, and her fellow-musicians clearly enjoy the experience in their graceful and beautifully detailed support.

Marc Rochester

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Dominy Clements

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