February 26, 2015


Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico—12 Concertos, Op. 3. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: Mandolin Concerto in C, RV 425; Transcriptions of concertos for violin, lute, flautino, and violin and lute. Avi Avital, mandolin; Venice Baroque Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon. $18.99.

Hummel: Piano Trios Nos. 1-7 (complete). Alessandro Deljavan, piano; Daniela Cammarano, violin; Luca Magariello, cello. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     Against the famed Germanic composers of the Baroque era are arrayed a large number of equally prominent Italians: Corelli, A. and D. Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Locatelli, Gabrieli, Tartini, Galuppi, Sammartini, Geminiani – and of course Vivaldi. So influential were Vivaldi’s works, so familiar are some of them today, that to many he stands as the Baroque composer, with only J.S. Bach at his level. Yet Vivaldi himself, far from encapsulating any particular tradition, was constantly innovating both in his compositions and in his own violin performances (which were controversial in their day: not everyone liked or appreciated his style). One small matter of creativity among many: L’Estro Armonico was the first collection of concertos ever to appear in two volumes. These 12 concertos were published in 1711 to great admiration, and along with Vivaldi’s Op. 8 (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, the set that includes The Four Seasons) are arguably the composer’s most important printed works. Yet it is only now that they have been recorded using a critical edition that scrupulously returns to and adheres to Vivaldi’s original intentions. Federico Guglielmo, an outstanding solo violinist who also acts as concertmaster of the group he founded in 1994, L’Arte dell’Arco, performs all the concertos attentively, fervently and with an absolute command of Baroque style and ornamentation on a new Brilliant Classics release. These performances give the lie to the notion that all Vivaldi concertos are essentially the same: eight of these are in three movements, four in four; six are in major keys, six in minor; there are two in D and two in A minor, but the others are in eight different keys – A, E, F and G major and B, D, E and G minor. Even the instrumental combinations differ among these works: four feature a single solo violin, four call for two, and four require four. Admittedly, the decidedly odd arrangement of the concertos on this new recording makes it difficult to see how carefully Vivaldi formulated and arranged the set of 12: the concertos are presented in the order 10, 1, 5, 7, 8, 4, 9, 2, 12, 6, 11 and 3, for no stated or readily discernible reason. Still, with the exception of this unexplained oddity of presentation, the performance here is wonderful from start to finish. This is essentially chamber music, although it was not deemed so in its time: there are only 11 players here, including Guglielmo, and not all of them perform all the works. So the music has always been intended to have a lightness, a transparency, a clarity as great as it has in this recording. Individual movements are invariably short, some less than a minute and none longer than three-and-a-half, but each is a complete package in itself, and each fits perfectly – in tempo, rhythm and key relationship – with the others within a given concerto. No wonder so many consider Vivaldi to be the Italian Baroque composer. And no wonder Bach and others made so many transcriptions and paid so many tributes to Vivaldi – there is perfection of form here, as well as profound understanding of the musical capabilities of the instruments for which these works were written.

     It should be no surprise, given Vivaldi’s importance, that Vivaldi transcriptions continue to be made even in the 21st century. Mandolinist Avi Avital even includes one from L’Estro Armonico on his new Deutsche Grammophon CD: No. 6, in A minor. Hearing it as a mandolin concerto shows clearly that Vivaldi, like Bach, wrote music that in a sense transcends the instruments for which it was written – even though it lies so well on those instruments. The sound of Avital’s transcription is certainly different from that of the original solo-violin concerto, but the purity, elegance and poise of the music come through just as clearly here as when Guglielmo plays the same music. Vivaldi did write concertos specifically for mandolin, and the one heard here – in C, RV 425 – in some ways is the highlight of the entire disc: Avital plays it with flair as well as understanding, and the overall effect is delightful. In other ways, though, a highlight here is the mandolin transcription of “Summer” from The Four Seasons – this music is so well-known that it may seem quixotic to perform it on an instrument other than the violin, for which it was written. Yet here as in the transcription of Op. 3, No. 6, Avital makes a convincing case for playing this as a mandolin concerto, not because it is in any sense authentic but simply because it works and manages to sound so good in this alternative arrangement. The rest of the pieces on this disc are also transcriptions: Concerto in D for lute, RV 93; the Largo movement from Concerto in C for flautino, RV 443; and the Trio Sonata in C for violin and lute, RV 82 – with Avital here joined by Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord, Ophira Zakai on lute and Patrick Sepec on cello. At the end of the CD, as an unusual bonus, tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings two 18th-century Venetian Gondolier songs, with Avital here playing not his usual mandolin but an 18th-century variant called the mandolin lombardo – and with support from Ivano Zanenghi on lute, Daniele Bovo on cello, Lorenzo Feder on harpsichord and Fabio Tricomi on Baroque guitar. The Venice Baroque Orchestra performers, who play on period instruments or reproductions of them and are steeped in historically accurate performance practices, complement Avital’s playing beautifully throughout this disc. The result of all the virtuosity is a chance to hear Vivaldi from a new and fascinating angle, and to understand the capabilities of the mandolin not only in Vivaldi’s music but also within the Italian musical tradition in general.

     That tradition also includes first-rate performing, sometimes by the composers themselves and often by others interpreting their music. The performance tradition has come down to the present day largely unscathed, and has resulted in excellent handling of a great deal of non-Italian music as well as that of Italy itself. One particularly enjoyable recent example is the recording by a trio of first-rate Italian performers, on Brilliant Classics, of the complete piano trios of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a composer long neglected because he straddles the Classical and Romantic eras without fitting fully into either, and therefore sounds “too derivative” of the earlier era and “not anticipatory enough” of the later one. At least that is how the neglect of him and his music have long been justified – but as more of his works become available, the prejudice against him is showing itself as just that: unjustifiable bias. Hummel knew and interacted with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and his performances as a piano virtuoso helped pave the way for Chopin, Liszt and others, and he is scarcely responsible for living in a time of transition. He wrote in just about every musical form except the symphony, and that is one reason for his music’s neglect: there are no symphonies to revive – as there are ones by, for example, Ferdinand Ries and Louis Spohr. But Hummel’s chamber music is, or should be, a fertile field for modern performers, including the trio of Alessandro Deljavan, Daniela Cammarano and Luca Magariello. Hummel’s seven piano trios (not counting a very early eighth, labeled as a sonata) date from about 1804 (the year Haydn helped Hummel obtain a post with Prince Nikolaus Esterházy) to the early 1820s. The Deljavan/Cammarano/Magariello recording offers them, intelligently, in order of opus number, which may not be wholly accurate chronologically (the exact dates of composition are not entirely certain) but gives a good general sense of Hummel’s musical development in this form. The first four trios, with opus numbers 12 (in E-flat), 22 (in F), 35 (in G) and 65 (also in G), beautifully balanced and unending tuneful, are shorter and generally lighter than the later ones, the earlier works’ lyricism well-controlled and their counterpoint (at which Hummel was adept) frequently lively. The first three are very much in the spirit of the 18th century, witty and well-mannered if perhaps, structurally, a trifle on the conventional side. The most original of the four is Op. 65, which has a comparatively substantial first movement and more formal and harmonic adventurousness than the others. Yet none of these compares with the three later trios. Op. 83 in E, the longest of the seven, has intensely lyrical sections and is distinguished for the way it significantly expands sonata form. Op. 93 in E-flat features a dramatic opening to the development of the first movement and a very Mozartean finale. And Op. 96, also in E-flat, shows considerable originality in the first movement’s design, includes a number of unusual instrumental twists in its second-movement variations, and concludes with a Rondo alla russa reflective not only of Russia but also of Poland – two nations that Hummel visited as a virtuoso. The easy camaraderie in the Deljavan/Cammarano/Magariello performances and Hummel’s frequently sparkling writing for all three instruments combine to make this recording of Hummel’s trios another piece of evidence, if another is needed, that a great deal of fine music by this unjustly neglected composer has been rediscovered – and more is surely to come.

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