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Robert Maxham
Fanfare, May 2009

Claudio Scimone recorded his program of concertos and other works by Arcangelo Corelli in Rome’s Basilica of San Marco on October 5, 1986; Medici Arts has now made it available on DVD, offering a choice of three audio formats, PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The screen ratio of 4:3 offers no such choices. The video editor provides plenty of close-ups of the instruments and instrumentalists, occasionally cutting abruptly from one point of view to another, a shot of the concertino, for example, changing unexpectedly to one of the mosaics.

If Vivaldi revealed the Dionysian side of Scimone’s personality (which he expressed not through experimentation with I Solisti Veneti’s always silky smooth timbres but through abrupt changes in tempo, often distinguishing tuttis from solos), Corelli brings out Scimone’s Apollonian nature, though the familiar description of the Maestro playing with fiery eyeballs rolling may have inspired Scimone to adopt a more flamboyant podium style, with large-scale gestures and an occasional, almost calculated, smile. The musicians, with violinists Marco Fornaciari and Kazuki Sasaki and comparatively youthful cellist Gianantonio Viero serving as the concertino, play on modern instruments with I Solisti Veneti’s customary polished elegance (and with plenty of vibrato, sometimes slow, sometimes faster, sometimes narrow, and sometimes wider) and produce a large sound that reverberates majestically in the Basilica. Occasionally, as in the Allemanda of the Concerto, op. 6/10, the inner voices sound less prominent than they might in a drier ambiance, but the result nevertheless suits these pieces, the first eight of which Corelli wrote as concerti da chiesa.

Marco Fornaciari seems wound more tightly than does Kazuki Sasaki, who plays with consistently glowing tone, but they make a seamless duo nonetheless; and Fornaciari provides a personal, nuanced reading of Corelli’s solos (as in the Allegro of the Concerto, op. 6/3, and the bariolage-laced first Allegro of the Concerto, op. 6/12), though such solos, usually brief, appear less frequently than their counterparts do in, say, Torelli’s trumpet concertos. The ensemble’s détaché, consistently more connected than “sprung” (Robert Donington’s term for the slight spacing between notes produced by the Baroque bow), may approach more closely portato or louré, but that style’s part and parcel of I Solisti Veneti’s highly integrated, distinctive manner. In general, the organ continuo sounds less prominent, except in the occasional solos, than does the harpsichord. The alternation of concertino and tutti varies from subtle in many of the movements to obvious in the Allegro of the Concerto, op. 6/10. Tempos vary from moderate to brisk (as in the Concerto, op. 6/9), and ornamentation, usually limited in these performances to the slow movements, sometimes also drives faster ones along as well.

In the frequently played Concerto, op. 6/8 (with its ad libitum pastoral Largo for Christmas), the ensemble creates a bleak crepuscular effect by playing the opening movement without vibrato (yet note that in the Baroque period itself, vibrato, not lack of it, served as a timbral ornament) before opening the sound into resplendent warmth in the succeeding Allegro. The pastoral Largo sounds more joyous than solemn, creating an airy, weightless reading in which the organ speaks the final, joyful word.

Two different kinds of works round out the program. First comes a Sonata a quattro for trumpet and strings (Corelli seems to have provided wholly idiomatic parts for neither the trumpet—once itself a church instrument interchangeable with violin—nor for the violins, though the notes by Matthias Hengelbrock suggest that the writing resembles that in the period’s English music for trumpet, and suggests a visitor to Rome, “Mr. Twiselton,” as the trumpeter for whom Corelli wrote it). Finally, in the last of the three programs on the DVD, appears the famous “La follia,” a set of variations that constitutes the last of Corelli’s 12 influential Solo Sonatas, op. 5, played in this collection by one of the ensemble’s violinists, Bettina Mussumeli, and harpsichordist Ernesto Merlini. Mussumeli and Fornaciari seem to be the only violinists who play with shoulder rests, a device that, according to Aaron Rosand, transforms a violinist’s approach (and not for the better, except in specific cases). While she employs a great number of changes in tempo between the succeeding variations and connects more notes legato than most editions suggest, yet she provides lift to others, especially the bouncing figuration of the more sprightly ones, by means of a slightly off-the-string staccato style and the use of “unequal” notes. The bustling continuo part provides highly charged support. In a surprising twist, the duo returns to the main theme after the last variation.

If Corelli deserves to be considered the father of violin-playing, these concertos, which he supposedly developed through the years from earlier trio sonatas, should also be numbered among his successful children, played and copied as they would be for generations to come. The solo sonatas too; Thomas Jefferson’s copy of “La follia” received heavy use. I Solisti Veneti’s performances provide a benchmark on modern instruments by which the advances (or retreats) by the period-instrument movement can conveniently be measured. Strongly recommended.

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3:43:37 AM, 11 October 2015
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