September 03, 2015


Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Concerti a Due Cori Nos. 1-3. Zefiro conducted by Alfredo Bernardini. Arcana. $18.99.

Haydn: Horn Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Michael Haydn: Horn Concerto; Mozart: Horn Concerto in E-flat (reconstructed). Felix Klieser, horn; Württemburgisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn conducted by Ruben Gazarian. Berlin Classics. $18.99.

Vivaldi: La Stravaganza—12 Concertos, Op. 4. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: Concerto in C for Two Trumpets and Orchestra, RV 537; Concerto in C for Organ, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, RV 554a; Sonata in C for Oboe, Violin, Organ and Chalumeau, RV 779; Arias from “Motezuma,” “Il Teuzzone,” “Tito Manlio,” “Catone in Utica,” “Scanderbeg” and “La Fida Ninfa.” Gabriele Cassone and Matteo Frigé, natural trumpets; Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Marta Fumagalli, mezzo-soprano; Roberto Balconi, alto; Mauro Borgioni, bass; Ensemble Pian & Forte conducted by Francesco Fanna. Dynamic. $19.99.

     Splendid playing is a particular joy of all these releases, with the brass especially full and resonant in Zefiro’s performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and three wind concerti (whose music is drawn mainly from the composer’s oratorio choruses – Handel was an inveterate and very adept re-purposer). These performances date to 2006 but sound as fresh as can be, with very quick tempos in the faster movements, sensitive phrasing in the slower sections, close attention paid to Baroque style, and overall enthusiasm that comes through delightfully in all four of the suites. There have been more grandiose recordings of Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was, after all, intended as an outdoor display piece and features accessible themes and a celebratory style; but Anthony Bernardini and Zefiro excel in the musicianly way they approach the music, refusing to regard it as an 18th-century potboiler, even though that is in some ways what it is. The brass is so good in Music for the Royal Fireworks, so resonant and so full-sounding, that it tends to steal the show from the other instruments – as indeed occurs in the second and third wind concertos as well (the first omits the four horns that are present in the others). One example among many: the fifth movement of the third wind concerto, which is based on Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne and the 1732 version of Esther, offers delightfully scurrying strings with horn passages that resound in triumph above them to excellent effect. This Arcana CD contains well-known music, but the performances’ level of detail and expressiveness make the pieces sound fresh, and the especially fine brass lends an air of splendor to the whole disc.

     The brass playing is also first-rate, albeit without any claim to authenticity of instrumentation, on a new Berlin Classics CD featuring Felix Klieser, who was born without arms and plays the French horn with his feet, using remarkable breath control to achieve the effects that other horn players manage by hand-stopping their instruments. Klieser’s extraordinary story is not the point of this disc of music by Joseph and Michael Haydn and Mozart, although Klieser’s accomplishments inevitably underlie the whole production. What matters here is the music, which Klieser plays with remarkable sensitivity, fine phrasing, excellent cadenzas, and truly astonishing breath control. Haydn’s Concerto No. 1 – the only horn concerto known for sure to be by him – is stately and measured here in its first two movements, with a particularly fine trill in the second movement’s cadenza, and is then outgoing and bright in its finale. Concerto No. 2, which stylistically appears to be an earlier work than No. 1 whether or not Haydn wrote it, gets an equally sensitive and carefully wrought performance; and although Klieser plays a modern horn, the Württemburgisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn under Ruben Gazarian backs him up with apt attention to period style. Klieser and Gazarian also make a high-quality team for the other, less-known works here. Michael Haydn’s concerto, sometimes called a concertino, may have originated as part of a now-lost serenade, which would account for the unusual movement sequence of slow-fast-minuet. The music is more stylized and more Baroque in feeling than that of Michael’s older brother, constructed with elegance and the sort of formal balance that characterizes much of Michael’s still-underrated music. Klieser’s horn is if anything a touch too prominent here, thoroughly overshadowing the strings and continuo, but the playing itself is top-notch, with fine pacing, phrasing and rhythmic vitality. Also here is a reconstructed two-movement horn concerto by Mozart, cobbled together from two movements with the catalogue numbers K370a and K371. The movements appear to date to 1781, making them earlier than any of the four extant complete concertos (the earliest, No. 2, dates to 1783). The music is certainly Mozart’s, and even if the piece is by its nature fragmentary, it is good to hear something new, or rather rediscovered, in Mozart’s horn production. Here too Klieser plays with care and sensitivity and is well backed up by Gazarian and the ensemble. Because this is a CD rather than a DVD, Klieser’s appearance and performing method never become distractions from the music, and that is what Klieser himself wants: he has said he simply wants to be known as a musician, and on the basis of this recording, he is certainly a very fine one.

     Brass is absent in the latest Brilliant Classics release featuring outstanding Baroque violinist Federico Guglielmo, but virtuosity certainly is not, and here it is coupled with meticulous attention to period style and a willingness to rethink compositions that appear formulaic at first glance but that Guglielmo shows to have considerable individuality. Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco, previously released a splendid L’Estro Armonico, Vivaldi’s Op. 3, and now complement it with La Stravaganza, Op. 4. Despite the title, these 12 concertos are something less than extravagant, and in fact are formally less forward-looking than Op. 3. But they contain some harmonic experimentation that is interesting, including an instance of enharmonic modulation in No. 7 that is well ahead of Vivaldi’s time. As with L’Estro Armonico, Guglielmo presents the concertos – seven in major keys and five in minor – in an order that appears arbitrary, although he does explain that the works on the first CD (Nos. 1, 11, 9, 4, 7 and 2) have a stronger ensemble focus, while those on the second disc (Nos. 12, 8, 5, 10, 6 and 3) are more strongly soloistic. This is a matter of degree, however, and most listeners will likely notice no significant differences in the structure of these concertos or their handling of the solo violin. What they will notice, however, is the strength and forthrightness with which Guglielmo plays the music, as well as the very unusual sound of his Mantuan instrument, built by Tommaso Balestrieri around 1760 and having a number of quirks and downright peculiarities. This is an instrument that sounds notably different in different ranges, a reality with which Guglielmo works carefully in order to showcase the differing sound of the various Op. 4 concertos and, indeed, of the individual movements within them. There is something exhilarating in Guglielmo’s handling of Vivaldi, whom he refuses to deem a fusty composer of formula-based concertos but instead regards as an innovative, clever and instrumentally highly adept creator of music whose individuation Guglielmo seems determined to bring out at every opportunity. The result is a La Stravaganza that is, if not extravagant, intelligent, musically refined and wholly successful.

     Vivaldi did write for brass, although not to anywhere near the extent he wrote for strings – he was, after all, himself a violinist of considerable skill. A fascinatingly variegated CD on the Dynamic label gives a more-varied and more-nuanced portrait of Vivaldi as a composer than listeners usually encounter. Considerable thought obviously went into the assembly of this program featuring the exceptionally fine period group Ensemble Pian & Forte under the direction of Francesco Fanna. The two concertos and sonata here are all in C major, but the featured instruments vary very widely and Vivaldi’s writing for them differs dramatically from piece to piece. The two-trumpet concerto is especially attractive, doubly so because it is here played on the natural trumpets for which it was written, not on the later keyed trumpet – whose sound is very different, much more even and smooth and much more able to cut through an accompanying ensemble, but for those reasons much less distinctive and much less colorful. The concerto for organ, violin and cello is a rarity, showcasing three separate instruments, each of which is given a chance to display virtuosity within the compass of its capabilities. And the sonata, which includes the bright sound of the oboe with the deep voice of the chalumeau (predecessor of the clarinet, whose lowest register is still called chalumeau), attractively combines the woodwinds with violin and organ for a highly unusual sound. The vocal excerpts pale somewhat in comparison, even though they too often include trumpets. However, hearing any of Vivaldi’s operatic music is an unusual experience: only about 20 scores of his operas survive, some of them in fragmentary form, although he claimed to have written 94 (a matter made more confusing by the then-common practice of retitling works and reusing material from one work in another or several others). All Vivaldi’s known operas are essentially in opera seria form, which means the recitatives carry the plot along while the arias are used to express characters’ reactions to events and emotional responses to each other and to what is happening. The seven arias here, from six operas (there are two from Tito Manlio), are not especially distinctive, but all show off Vivaldi’s vocal-writing abilities and provide the soloists, especially soprano Francesca Cassinari (who sings four of the pieces), with opportunities to showcase their vocal range and control. The absence of texts for the arias is unfortunate: the expressions of these characters may be formal and formulaic, but knowing the words would help listeners distinguish between arias using the trumpet to underline a character’s martial prowess and ones using it to indicate the character’s anger (two common reasons for including the trumpet in this context in Vivaldi’s era). Even without the texts, this is a very unusual Vivaldi disc, showing sides of the composer not often encountered and rounding out the portrait of Il Prete Rosso to show him as far more wide-ranging in capabilities and compositional skills than he is sometimes considered to be by people who know him only through his violin concertos.

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