Corelli Concerti Grossi Op 6
The re-release of The English Concert’s award-winning recording of Corelli’s Op 6 concertos offers a welcome opportunity to reflect on some of the changes in taste that have emerged since 1989. Two competing recordings, by groups led by Italians – that of Ensemble 415 and Europa Galante – oblige with two quite different approaches to this most quintessential of Baroque music.
Ensemble 415, under Banchini and Christensen, takes a historically informed approach to the instrumentation and tempi, leaning heavily on the observations of Muffat and the employment records of Corelli’s patrons for evidence. This interpretation is representative, then, of the period in which the concertos were first performed – probably the 1680s – whereas Pinnock’s is an 18th-century one, reflective of the time in which they first appeared in print. Where Pinnock relies on a lean and lithe ensemble to convey crystal-clear textures, the violins of Ensemble 415 luxuriate on the cushioned sound created by six cellos, five contrebasses, four archlutes and a chitarrone, in addition to the ubiquitous harpsichord and organ. They also use them as soloists (for example in Concerto Nos 4 and 12) and for special effects, as in the Pastorale ad libitum of the Christmas Concerto to mimic the sounds of bagpipes and hurdygurdies, to great, if eccentric, effect.
While Banchini and her second violin, Enrico Gatti, offer exquisitely ornamented repeats, they also at times take disconcerting liberties with the tempi within movements (for example, at the cadences in the first allegro of the Christmas Concerto). Their allegro and vivace tempi are generally slower than Pinnock’s, and often agreeably so. Despite Georg Muffat’s report of Corelli’s preference for strongly contrasting tempi, I am inclined to believe that Pinnock often takes the fast movements too quickly. What is missing in 415’s performances is Pinnock’s architect-ural vision of these works and The English Concert’s irrepressible sense of joy.
The leader of Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, takes a distinctly personal approach to what is in essence collaborative music. His own musical voice is omnipresent. He is the impetus for the outré attitude – the eccentric articulation and dynamics and the heavily elaborated ornamentation – that characterises this recording. One could almost be forgiven for thinking these were solo concertos (which begs the question, who was Corelli’s concertino second violinist?); to learn the identity of Biondi’s ‘second’ it is necessary to log onto Naïve’s website; no booklet accompanies this reissue.
By contrast, the relationship between the concertino and ripieno ensembles Corelli intended is celebrated by the musicians of The English Concert. The collaboration of Simon Standage, the late Micaela Comberti and Jaap ter Linden with their colleagues remains unparalleled in terms of its consistency and precision. While the engineers in these recordings may have influenced these impressions, their hand in the 415 recording is apparently restrained by the decision not to employ special miking; indeed, while the aural impression may be more lifelike, it is also less defined and, therefore, less brilliant.
Fifteen years after it was recorded, the glossy, corporate sheen of Pinnock’s interpretation remains undimmed, securing its place as one of the lasting icons of the British early-music revival, if not the wider movement.