Fanfare 1. review - 5 stars
August 18, 2023
CORELLIMANIA Michala Petri (rcdr); Hille Perl (vdg); Mahan Esfahani (hpd) OUR 6.220682 (75:46)
CORELLI Sonata da Chiesa in b, op.3/4. Sonata in g, op. 5/12, “La Follia.” BACH Fugue on a Theme by Corelii, BWV 579. 4 Duets for Recorder and Viola da gamba. Chorale Prelude: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658. TELEMANN Trio Sonata No. 2 in A, “Sonata Corellisante.” HANDEL Sonata for Alto Recorder in d, HWV 367. Suite for Harpsichord in B, HWV 434
Long time doyenne of the recorder, Michala Petri here once again joins longtime friends and musical colleagues Hille Perl, viola da gamba, and Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord, in a program of Baroque-period works by four of its iconic composers—Arcangelo Corelli, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Philipp Telemann, and George Frederick Handel—one of them Italian, two of them German, and one German-born, Italian-schooled, and a citizen of Britain conferred upon him by an Act of Parliament. The title of the album, Corellimania, reflects the unwitting role Corelli played, not only as the most important influencer on the future style of 18th-century instrumental music, but as the likely progenitor of the forms it would take, notably concerto grosso, trio sonata, sonata da chiesa, and sonata da camera.
I say “unwitting” because I doubt that he knew how profoundly his works would influence succeeding generations of composers, and all the more remarkable is how relatively few of those works there are. Compared to the catalogs of Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi, Corelli’s output in numbers is small—six published opus numbers in all:
12 Trio Sonatas for two violins, violone (or archlute), and continuo, op. 1;
12 Trio Sonatas for two violins, violone, and continuo, op. 2;
12 Trio Sonatas for two violins, violone (or archlute), and continuo (organ), op. 3;
12 Trio Sonatas for two violins, violone, and continuo, op. 4;
12 Violin Sonatas for violin and continuo, op. 5;
12 Concerti Grossi for two violins, cello, and continuo, op. 6.
But for another handful of violin sonatas, a number of which are attributed to Corelli spuriously, that, as they say, “is all she wrote.”
Moreover, few composers in history have been as self-critical. To Corelli, mere perfection wouldn’t do. He is said to have polished his works over and over again before allowing them to be published. It’s also worth noting that in the latter part of the 17th century, when his works were written, forms of purely instrumental music were still fairly novel and vying for equality with opera and a variety of vocal and choral forms, both sacred and secular, that had also arisen in Italy at the end of the Renaissance and early Baroque and had taken center stage.
We can only speculate on how music history would have unfolded if Corelli hadn’t come along when he did. A confluence of events involving others besides Corelli were at work at the same time to advance the violin and violin family of instruments over the viols, which ushered in the age of the violin virtuoso—Geminiani, Locatelli, Bonporti, and others, who were students of Corelli and built upon his style and technique. But Corelli, himself, was a purist in matters of technique, believing that music for the violin should not extend above D or E on the instrument’s highest string.
Development of the violin wasn’t the only thing happening at the time. Matters of tuning and pitch were still unsettled, and would remain so for some time, but what was evolving, according to Richard Taruskin in the Oxford History of Music, Volume 2, was “modern tonality and functional harmony,” the early principles of which Corelli claimed to have learned from studying the works of Palestrina.
Corellimania, the album at hand, is a tribute to Corelli by three of the Baroque period’s most famous composers that followed him and acknowledged his influence on them in their own works. In one case—Bach’s Fugue in B Minor on a Theme by Corelli—attribution is direct. Bach’s fugue subject is based on the Vivace movement from Corelli’s Trio Sonata in B Minor for Two Violins and Continuo, op. 3/4.
In the case of Telemann’s Trio Sonata in A Major, titled “Corellisante,” Corelli is referenced obliquely, but there is no direct quoting or use of a theme from any known work by the Italian composer. Johan van Veen, booklet note author for Dorian’s Corellisante album, poses the question, “Did Telemann really want to imitate Corelli?” Veen then answers the question by quoting John Moran, who plays cello in Dorian’s recording: “For every passage reminiscent of Corelli, Telemann writes many more which are not.” Corelli’s music was merely the starting point for Telemann’s six “Corellisante” sonatas for two violin (or flute) and continuo from which Telemann developed his own style.
With Handel’s Sonata in D Minor for Alto Recorder and Continuo, HWV 367, there’s really no connection to Corelli, per se, but there is an anecdotal Italian connection. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the piece, “The autograph manuscript of the sonata is written on Italian paper, which was acquired by Handel during his travels in Italy between the end of 1706 and the end of 1709.”
It’s more than likely that Corelli would have used Italian manuscript paper as well, given that he was Italian and lived most of his life in Rome. Other than a connection based on use of common paper stock, it’s not likely that Corelli would have recognized much of himself in Handel’s sonata. To begin with, none of Corelli’s sonatas, as far as we know, call for a recorder. They’re mostly for two violins and continuo, with one opus, the 12 Sonatas of op. 5, being for one violin and continuo. Moreover, in his sonatas, Corelli, appears to have settled on works of four and sometimes five movements each. And only in three of his concerti grossi—Nos. 9, 10, and 11—does he up the number of movements to six. Handel’s sonata is spread over seven movements.
Farthest in remove, I think, from any direct influence by Corelli in this program are Bach’s Four Duets, BWV 802–805, and Chorale Prelude: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658. How so, you ask? Well, first off, these are works for solo organ, not as they’re performed here by recorder and viola da gamba in the duets, and by recorder, viola da gamba, and harpsichord in the standalone chorale.
Second, the Four Duets are part and parcel of Bach’s Clavier-Übung, III, aka German Organ Mass, a vast and highly complex collection of organ chorales that correspond to sections of the Lutheran Mass.
Considered to be “Bach’s most significant and extensive work for organ, containing some of his most musically complex and technically demanding compositions for that instrument,” the work is enclosed by the opening Prelude in E Major, BWV 552, and completed by its counterbalancing Fugue at the end (familiarly known as the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue). In between come a total of 21 chorale preludes and, just before the closing “St. Anne” Fugue, the Four Duets, performed here by Hille Perl and Michala Petri. The standalone organ chorale, Von Gott will ich nicht lassen is not part of the Clavier-Übung, III.
My sense is that Corelli would not have related to any of this. Bach’s German Organ Mass was essentially intended as a musical catechism for his Lutheran parishioners. It’s liturgical music with a devotional purpose. And because it’s by Bach, it’s likely that it contains hidden religious meanings for the faithful, based on keys, meters, and the notes themselves having some numerological significance.
I’m pretty sure that Corelli wasn’t Lutheran, and this sort of thing would have been beyond his understanding. For most Italian composers of purely instrumental music during the 17th and 18th centuries, music was mainly abstract and about the resplendency of sound, the singing, expressive quality of its melodies, the richness of its textures, and the sheer sumptuousness and sensuousness of its physical vibrations.
In the end, the extent to which the specific works on this album were directly, indirectly, or not at all, influenced by Corelli, it’s indisputable that Bach, Telemann, and Handel were students of Corelli’s works, and what they learned from them found its way into their music in ways both subtle and explicit. For example, harpsichordist and album note author, Mahan Esfahani, points out that Bach Four Duets and BWV 658 Chorale “are shaped by the violinistic idiom of works for other forces.”
With respect to Handel’s recorder sonata on the disc, Esfahani tells us that “the entire corpus of Handel’s wind sonatas testifies to the extraordinary spell cast by the grand dimensions
of the Corellian violin sonata as well as the influence of works with dance-inspired movements by contemporary French composers for solo instrument and continuo.”
Esfahani’s liner note is, in fact, very scholarly and very detailed, delving deeply into the history of the period and the ways in which the Corellian models of content, style, and form manifested themselves throughout the works of the major Baroque composers that followed him. But more than a reading assignment, ultimately, what we have before us in Corellimania is a listening experience. And what an experience to savor it is.
My acquaintance with Michala Petri goes back a very long ways to a Philips CD of recorder concertos by Vivaldi. The technical precision of her playing, the accuracy of her intonation, and the fluency of phrasing were amazing to me then and are now still. The intervening years have not diminished her facility or her artistry.
The violas da gamba, or viols, like the dinosaurs, fell victim to a natural event, in this case the rise to preeminence of the violin family of instruments that had stronger and more differentiated voices better suited to the larger venues and audiences that were coming into vogue. At the same time, the newer instruments were a strong factor in the rise of a new school of virtuosity in which brilliance of tone, displays of technique, and showmanship became the order of the day. Or, was it the other way around?
In the classic chicken-first vs. egg-first conundrum, one wonders whether the instruments were developed first and numbers of young, eager, competitive players flocked to play them; or, if the demand by players for innovative changes and improvements in instrument design is what kept the workshop of Stradivari’s apprentices humming.
With every technological advance, it’s said, something is gained while something is lost. What was lost was the softer-grained, intimate voices of the viols, instruments that have been brought back to life in modern times by accomplished and sensitive players such as we have here in Hille Perl. Inspired to play the viola da gamba at age five after attending a concert by Wieland Kuijken, German gambist Perl has become a specialist in French Baroque repertoire for the seven-string bass viola da gamba.
I wasn’t entirely wrong in once stating that there are no original gambas left in playing condition, and that artists who have taken up the instrument must make do with newly built or rebuilt ones based on historical models. Such is more or less true of the instrument Perl plays on the present recording, a 1686 viola da gamba by Matthias Alban. It was discovered in an Austrian convent in 1952, and apropos of my assertion, the instrument was no longer in playable condition. It was made playable by Ingo Muthesius, a well-known luthier specializing in old viols. “While not catastrophically damaged, Muthesius replaced the neck, retaining the original lion’s head scroll and peg box. The body is completely original, even though the original apple-wood back and sides have acquired a few minor cracks over the centuries.”
Hille Perl coaxes the most beautiful tone from the instrument, a sound that makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room and the instrument is imparting its secrets only to you.
Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord is a 2003 Italian-model instrument built by German harpsichord maker, Matthias Kramer. Its tonal properties are nicely matched to Petri’s recorder(s) and Perl’s viola da gamba. Pitch is tuned to A = 415 Hz. The disc, in physical form, is an SACD. And the Corelli connections aside, this is an hour and a quarter’s worth of wonderful music, expertly played, and superbly recorded. Recommended to one and all. Jerry Dubins, August 18.2023