An Enthusiasm for Italian Baroque Returns

Thirty-some years ago the Western World was gripped by Baroque Mania. Which really meant the music of the Italian late Baroque, above all Vivaldi's: uncomplicated, intensely rhythmical, agile, nervous and parceled out in small, easily digestible pieces.

Those were the days of globe-girdling Italian chamber orchestras: the Virtuosi di Roma, I Musici, the Societa Corelli and the Solisti di Zagreb from neighboring Yugoslavia, each equipped with a dozen string players, period. No harpsichord continuo, which was regarded as nothing more than an uneconomical, snob-invented logistical irritant.

Countless concerts were presented, countless recordings made, attracting numberless audiences in what would be today's 18-to-35-year-old target bracket, many of them first-time classical listeners. The music was, hindsight proves, played in a legato-vibrato style that didn't differ much from the way Brahms was and is played.

Some of the cognoscenti were pleased with this revival of long-dormant repertory, others decried it as "wallpaper" music employing "sewing-machine" rhythms.

The craze passed and the string orchestras either gave up the ghost or expanded into later repertory.

Subsequent specialist ensembles, such as Neville Marriner's original Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and, later, the new period-performance groups, had their go at "The Four Seasons" and related matter before dropping Vivaldi in favor of deeper, grander Bach and Handel.

Enthusiasm for the Italians seems to be returning, with the touring antiquarians (modern-instrument performances of Baroque repertory are becoming rarities) searching for today's equivalent to that crazy young audience of a few decades ago.

It shouldn't be difficult to find an audience for the dozen flashy, harmonically spicy violin concertos of Vivaldi's Opus 9, "La Cetra," when projected as lustily as they are by violinist Simon Standage and the Academy of Ancient Music directed from the harpsichord by Christopher Hogwood (L'Oiseau-Lyre 421 366, two CDs).

The performances are models of enlivening scholarship, notably as regards their unfrenzied rhythmic vitality and the richly varied continuo of archlute, theorbo, guitar, organ and harpsichord. And there isn't a sewing-machine rhythm within earshot. These were, as we long ago learned, less Vivaldi's doing than the early performers'.

Some of the most viable of Vivaldi's chamber works, distinguishable from "Cetra"-type concertos chiefly by their reliance on winds rather than strings--say, a combination of recorder, oboe, bassoon with continuo--are vigorously, skillfully handled by Camerata Koln (not to be confused with a similarly constituted Musica Antiqua Koln) on a pair of individual, mid-priced Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CDs (77018, 77033), issued under the umbrella of BMG Classics.

There is some wallpaper here, some hyperactive busywork. But the best of the pieces--the Trios in G minor, RV 107, and in A minor, RV 86--convey the elemental vigor and harmonic boldness that first attracted us to Vivaldi way back when.

Corelli is likely always to run a distant second to Vivaldi in the popular esteem. He sounds formal, sedate and old-fashioned compared to his successor. Still, Corelli does have a standard, the so-called "Christmas" Concerto from Opus 6, all 12 of whose concerti grossi Vivaldi, Handel and Bach found incomparably inspiring.

This composer's solo parts--only the first violin is worthy of the name--are self-effacing when set beside Vivaldi's, and the overall tone of a Corelli concerto grosso tends to be dignified rather than rambunctious. But not so dignified as his 1950s interpreters would have had us believe.

Corelli leaves the fireworks (low-key fireworks, to be sure) to his performers' imagination and that cue is admirably picked up in competing performances by Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert, who present all 12 works of Opus 6 (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 423 626, two CDs) and Nicholas McGegan and his hardly less accomplished band of American period specialists, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, who offer the first six of Opus 6 (Harmonia Mundi France 90714).

Both editions--in each instance zestfully directed from the harpsichord--persuasively argue the case for Corelli not only as one of the Baroque's path-breaking masters but as one of its livelier dancers too.

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