January 24, 2013

(++++) THE WEALTH OF THE BAROQUE


Tartini: Sonate piccole, Volume One—Nos. 1-6. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Telemann: Fantasies for Viola Solo. Firmian Lermer, viola. Paladino Music. $18.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume III—RV 485, 502, 474, 480, 495 and 475. Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; L’Aura Soave Cremona. Naïve. $16.99.

      There is simply no end to the treasurable music of the Baroque era. What is not already well-known seems just a short way away from being discovered or rediscovered, and what has not been performed anytime recently will surely show up in the concert hall or recorded form quite soon. That so much excellent music has essentially lain fallow for such a long time is an accident of history, now corrected through interest in historic performance practices and a renewed level of attention being paid to composers of Baroque times other than Bach and Vivaldi (but still including them).  The case of Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonate piccole for solo violin is instructive. Tartini (1692-1770) is nowadays known almost solely for his “Devil’s Trill” sonata, but there is a great deal more to him and his music than that. A very highly regarded violinist as well as much-admired composer, Tartini in his later years set about creating a cycle of sonatas for violin solo, and ended up writing 30 of them – creating a six-hour grouping that, taken collectively, is the largest integrated work ever written for the instrument. And the sonatas are far more than dry studies: each is carefully structured and elegantly constructed, with virtuoso elements kept at the service of poised and effective music-making. At least that is so in the case of the first six, which are excellently played by Peter Sheppard Skærved on a Toccata Classics CD that is the first volume of the first-ever complete recording of these works. Skærved has a fine sense of Baroque style and an understated virtuosity that fits these pieces very well. He is suitably upbeat, even celebratory, in the major-key works (Nos. 1 in G, 3 in D, 4 in C and the somewhat more understated No. 5 in F); and he brings tenderness and slight melancholy – but only to an appropriate degree – to those in minor keys (Nos. 2 in D minor and 6 in E minor).  A full hour of solo-violin music can be a lot to listen to, but just as with Bach’s solo-violin works, Tartini’s encompass such a wide range of moods and techniques, and contain so much that is interesting both technically and emotionally, that they are a pleasure from start to finish.

      A full hour of Telemann’s solo-viola music is quite something, too. Perhaps the most prolific composer of all time, Telemann was a real advocate of the viola – his Viola Concerto, probably the first one ever written, remains a favorite of students, professionals and audiences. For his 12 Fantasies for Solo Viola, Telemann essentially created a dozen mini-suites of three to six movements apiece, with many of those movements lasting less than one minute and few lasting as long as two: the 44 tracks on the new Paladino Music CD by Firmian Lermer take just 66 minutes. But what a wealth of invention is here! Telemann uses all the dance forms of his time, sometimes in slow pace and sometimes in fast, and combines them with string techniques ranging from lovely legato passages to pizzicato, martellato, double stops, wide leaps, quick changes of pace and rhythm – all while taking full advantage of the viola’s tuning a fifth below that of the violin, giving this music richness and depth of sound beyond that of solo-violin music.  Lermer, who produced the CD himself (and who also contributes some rather bizarre, self-indulgent booklet notes), is a fine stylist, paying tremendous attention to details of Telemann’s poised and elegant writing and to the ornamentation that is integral to music of this time.  The performances are thoroughly idiomatic throughout, and the four minor-key Fantasies (No. 3 in B-flat minor, No. 6 in A minor, No. 9 in E minor and No. 12 in D minor – note how Telemann spaces them evenly for maximum contrast with the major-key works) have just enough of an inward-looking feeling to balance the eight major-key ones. This CD is both a delight to hear and a fascinating exploration of solo works that, although they are miniatures, are pieces of some depth.

      Less profound but no less enjoyable, Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos, of which there are more than three dozen, are consistently delightful in their insistence on treating the solo instrument as a virtuosic woodwind, not the clownish amusement it was to become in later times. The third volume in Sergio Azzolini’s cycle of the bassoon concertos – using his own critical edition of the works – is every bit as expressive and elegant as the first two. Here he offers RV 485 in F, 502 in B-flat, 474 and 475 in C, 494 in G, and 480 in C minor.  All treat the instrument in much the same way, requiring considerable virtuosity and a command of its full compass but eschewing display for its own sake – although some of the finales certainly have their breathtaking moments. In fact, knowing when to take a breath during some of these movements can be a challenge, but it is just one of those that Azzolini overcomes with élan. His period-instrument playing is elegant and assured, and his command of the power of the bassoon and of Vivaldi’s musical structure is first-rate. He brings a suitable level of emotion to the one minor-key concerto here, and enough ebullience to the others to keep any listener bubbling happily along with the soloist and the excellent accompaniment of L’Aura Soave Cremona. Of course, Vivaldi – like Tartini – was a famed violinist, but Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos show that he was as adept in writing for this instrument as for his own, and hearing the works performed with as much skill and sensitivity as Azzolini brings to them is a great pleasure and is strong testimony to the enduring power of the best Baroque music.

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