CORELLI Concerti grossi, Op 6
Here is a wish—recently expressed in these pages come true! The English Concert have followed their superb recording of Corelli trio sonatas ( 419 614-2AH, 6/87) with an equally definitive CD of the Concerti grossi. By now this group must qualify as veterans of the early-music revival—they have made many important recordings (not least of which is the recent
Over the years The English Concert have developed an unmistakable 'sound', probably quite inseparable from their Englishness. The courtly traditions of Purcell that Handel later assimilated and projected—a curiously successful mixture of gravitas and wit—are central to their approach to other repertory of the era, just as echoes of the French court—the delicacy and dance-like qualities so revered—colour the interpretations of La Petite Bande (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/EMI). There is, I suppose, a case to be made for the internationalism (and hence the adaptability of the music to different interpretations) of Corelli's Op. 6 in that it was a selection of orchestral movements assembled posthumously and first published in Amsterdam rather than in his native Italy. But the sophistication and discernment of the original auditors, the Roman aristocracy, is reflected in every movement irrespective of whether they were ever performed in the order we know them today. And the grandeur and fire, not to mention the conviction and precision, with which The English Concert imbue their performances seems to me ultimately more resonant of Corelli's conception of these works than the highly mannered and often almost mincing rendition by La Petite Bande.
Of course, listening to 12 concertos, one after another, is hardly what the composer expected or intended—just as Monteverdi probably would have been quite astounded that anyone would wish to perform or listen to his entire Marian Vespers cycle in a sitting—but the exercise does forcefully drive home the powerful sense of the composer's breadth of imagination and technique. In the course of these works one encounters a rich panoply of concertino and ripieno ensemble textures—simple alternation of the same phrase between forces, orchestra accompaniments that are sometimes sustained and at other times function as musical punctuation (and, indeed glosses on the concertino text), polyphonic and homophonic tutti textures and often in quick succession. Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord is always alert to the exigencies of Corelli's palette of ensemble colour—not to mention those of metre and tempo—and Simon Standage, the leader and first violin soloist, is adept at taking his cues.
The concertino playing of Standage, Micaela Comberti and Jaap Ter Linden (whose cello obbligatos in Nos. 1, 8 and 11 fairly fly!) is technically and stylistically never in question. Standage's cadential elaborations (as in the Grave of No. 3 and at the end of the first Allegro of No. 5) and transitional ones (for example, the Adagio of No. 12)—indeed those of Pinnock and the theorbist Nigel North in the Grave of No. 2 and elsewhere are extremely tasteful, as too is his ornamentation in the Adagio of No. 9, if a trifle cool by Italian standards. Standage and Comberti play, as always, in complete mutual sympathy, giving moments of exhilaration such as in the electrifying upward bariolage of the first Allegro of No. 4. In fact, the second, dancing Allegro of this D major Concerto contains the most marvellous passages of written-out trills, chromatically suspended one from the other between the two violins, and exquisitely placed by the players. The fashion now—to many listeners' delight and relief—is towards using more vibrato, though (as in the Preludio of No. 10) it is applied with great discernment.
These performances have a wonderful sweep, conveying a grandeur of conception that too often eludes other ensembles. One of Pinnock's greatest strengths is his ability to fuse a large-scale conception with perfection of detail. Even his command of silence (as in the opening Adagio of No. 4) is eloquent. If the fast movements often seem almost too fast (as in the Vivace of No. 3), they are never messy, and so powerful is their energy that the listener is occasionally catapulted headlong to the end of what are relatively short movements. The English Concert never descend to sentimentalism (of the sort one encounters in modern performances such as that of the Cantilena ensemble on Chandos) and instead project a lively and sincere love of the music. These are truly inspired performances that should give great pleasure to all who listen to them and which surely merit the commendation of their peers.'