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Fanfare Magazine (US) - Highly recommended, it almost goes without saying. Ronald E. Grames

April 25, 2015

Ronald E. Grames

CORELLI Sonatas, op. 5/7–12 • Michala Petri (rec); Mahan Esfahani (hpd) • OUR RECORDINGS 6.220610 (65:56)
Arcangelo Corelli, as Mahan Esfahani declares in his enlightening and engaging program note to this release, “was the first world-famous composer.” So great was his success, so wide his fame and influence, that, to quote those notes again, “Every composer of the High Baroque wanted, in a sense, to be Corelli.” Among his most famous compositions was a set of 12 sonatas for violin and basso continuo, designated opus 5. Not only were and are these popular among violinists, but they were soon after their composition transcribed to be played on a variety of instruments including, in this instance, the recorder. This is particularly true of the second half of the set, the pieces recorded here, which were based on dance tunes of that period. The transcriptions used as the basis for this release were published in the first few decades of the 18th century by London publisher John Walsh, best known for his publication of Handel’s music. The transcriber’s identity is unknown.
Petri has recorded some Corelli before: “La Follia,” op. 5/12 twice before, once with her family trio in 1981 and again with lutenist Lars Hannibal in 2011. The first was all youthful impetuosity and amazing virtuosity over relatively unornamented continuo accompaniment. The latter is intriguing for the softer quality the lute accompaniment offers, but limited in the tempo choices to what the lutenist—prodigiously talented though he be—could accomplish on a plucked instrument. Petri also recorded a lovely Sonata No. 9 in 1984 with harpsichordist George Malcolm, in performances where tempos are lively and ornaments are generally applied da capo and relatively discretely.
A major difference between these newest performances and those earlier ones can be found in the dazzling playing of Esfahani and the startling amount of embellishment that is done to the solo line and basso continuo, both in the original statement of each section as well as in the repeat. Hardly a note of the original goes unadorned, and at times one is hard pressed to hear anything but the harmonic contour of the written line.
I do not say this to criticize; the result is absolutely brilliant, and the often four- and even five-voice realizations are based on documented period practice. It is a stunning demonstration of performer as creative artist, a skill which quickly died at the end of the Baroque period and has only recently been taken up again. Elegant and florid, these performances essentially define Rococo. There may, of course, be some who will find it too much. For the rest of us, these performances are an exhilarating experience: an Olympic event of music-making and a meeting of two remarkable musicians in repertoire seemingly created to exhibit their particular talents. It is hard not to be mesmerized by the imagination and creativity with which Esfahani shapes and embroiders the basso continuo part, and by the variety of tone and attack which he is capable of applying to its execution. And Petri, who has always impressed, but especially for her purity of tone and precision of execution, seems afire here with improvisatory zeal.
Esfahani notes the sources of authentic ornaments used, but apparently much of what was actually recorded was extemporized from those sources and each take differed in details of execution. It must have been an exhilarating experience to record. It certainly is such to experience the result. OUR Recordings provides its usual exemplary engineering—DXD 352.8 kHz/32 bit recordings downsampled to SACD and CD resolutions—and stylish presentation, with a booklet that includes the already cited notes, biographies of the two artists, many photographs from the sessions, and reproductions of some pages of the original parts. Free scores can be found online, at least for the violin versions, and following them while listening to these wonderful realizations is an enjoyable experience in itself. Highly recommended, it almost goes without saying. Ronald E. Grames
This article originally appeared in Issue 38:4 (Mar/Apr 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.