Una follia di Napoli 1725
As album concepts go, this one requires explanation if the music is to be anything more than a pleasant, lightweight visit to a corner of Baroque music that’s not often explored so intensively. So the bonus DVD is welcome if not essential, with recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger explaining that 1725 was something of
a musical crossroads, when the specific Neapolitan style cultivated over many years (and represented here by seldom-heard composers such as Francesco Barbella and Domenico Sarro) was challenged by the touring transverse flute virtuoso Johann Joachim Quantz. With his mastery of the instrument also came a lighter, less emotionally intense manner of composition, represented on this disc by Leonardo Leo.
The difference is meaningful: the specifically Neapolitan works show a strong operatic influence. In contrast to the monothematic sprints of Vivaldi’s concertos, these works are more eventful both in content in meaning. Barbella’s Concerto III in C major has a marvellous slow aria from which Steger teases out great expressive content. Domenico Scarlatti’s Sinfonia I in A major has racing violin lines that coalesce into a distinctive texture. Mancini’s Sonata II in G minor has the recorder making dramatic, rhythmic stabbing gestures in the Largo movement. Leo’s concerto didn’t take Quantz on board completely, exploring traditionally Neapolitan sentiment in his concerto’s slow movement.
Much of the success of the pieces has to do with the instrumentation, though how much of that came from the manuscripts or Steger’s imagination is hard to say. Certainly the choice of continuo instruments is his, favouring folksy lutes and Baroque guitar. Most distinctively, he uses the ethereal-sounding dulcimer. As for Steger’s own playing, he has rare solidity and precision, plus almost any shade of colour that he can imagine.