The Imaginarium Ensemble performs late baroque works for violin and basso continuo by Tartini, Veracini, Mossi, and Bonporti.
This release on Pasacaille seems to be a re-print of an album originally produced for the Japanese market. I'm glad to have stumbled upon it on Amazon; readers will recognize, no doubt, it features the Italian violinist Enrico Onofri, the lead violinist and co-founder of Il Giardino Armonico.
I've tended to think that Onofri's specialty and real gift was in sonatas of the early Italian baroque; his work with several collaborators, including the Imaginarium, have featured this repertoire. His ability with ornamentation, variation in color, and style for this music really is unparalleled. This album seems purposely poised at the later chapter in this repertoire, featuring likely Tartini's best-known work, the "Devil's Trill" sonata. Andrew Manze made the case in his recording to use no continuo part, arguing that the continuo was only added as a device to make the publication of the work more profitable - as playing with a partner (or two) would have been expected. His rationalization was that the Devil, who supposedly appeared in a dream of Tartini's, wouldn't have been accompanied by anyone. Onofri does use continuo, but in his notes doubts that the version that is published may not be the original, and even doubts if the story is authentic. What is authentic, from the start, is the virtuosity on display in this recording. The opening bars with the harpsichord pique our interest, and the second movement, an Allegro, feature Onofri up to his old tricks, but in a style that seems all the more appropriate for late baroque works. It's a rhetorical style that I'd best have to compare to that of a character actor. Either they're "there" or they're not quite there…
The virtuosity presents itself in a couple of ways… the first is the athletic pace that Onofri adopts for his fast movements in the Tarini; the second is the trilling and ornamentation.
The recorded sound reveals the beautiful sonority of Onofri's instrument, but the balance for me isn't quite right. Closer miking might have helped; a wider stereo image would have helped too. But despite those criticisms, it's obvious that the three performers are on a similar wavelength in terms of the performance. Onofri is clearly the main actor on the stage; but the keyboard and cello both support him well.
Two works by Veracini are represented; the first is an e-minor sonata (Allegro, Largo/Staccato, Giga) and a g-minor in four movements. The Mossi sonata is a 5-movement work in a-minor, and the Bonporti is his fourth sonata in g-minor. I love minor keyed sonatas.
Above that, I like fast movements best. But the Veracini slow movement in e is an interesting work. It starts out very strong, and in the manner it's played, is sublimely showcases the sound of Onofri's instrument. I'm assuming it is the same Anonymous Italian instrument he plays normally; it is an instrument that doesn't have a very significant sound character, it tends to taper nicely on the high end, but in the mid-to-lower register, it conveys a nice sweetness. Onofri's bowing hard from the start, which really makes the instrument sing. Two opportunities present themselves for improvisation; Onofri takes the second one to give us a real show; the outburst is a sequence of a chords that I'm guessing uses all four strings, aggressive bowing, and the sound of that instrument by itself is nothing short of gorgeous. His impeccable tuning helps the effect, for sure. The Giga shortly follows, with Veracini's musical language contrasting with a playful line that seems to almost toy with us based on what we just heard. It's tongue-in-cheek opposing affects, and it's difficult to not smile all the while until the last notes. The sonata ends with a fittingly rough multi-stop chord in the violin. Matches perfectly with his earlier improvisation.
The Mossi sonata comes alive in the second movement, a contrapuntal number that again shows off Onofri's strong playing, revealing again the full, robust tone of his instrument. Lots of bariolage makes for fun entertainment. It only continues, full tilt, in the (Adagio), following a descending fifth sequence. It might not have been the most inventive writing, but Mossi knew how to get a rise from the audience. The remainder of the work played with similar, sympathetic care by the ensemble.
Veracini's second appearance opens with an Adagio "with great gravitas", challenging the performer to take a single note and make a huge crescendo/decrescendo out of it. This was cataloged as among one of the most challenging things to do well, according to the booklet's notes in the baroque. Here the cello and violin work well in concert, holding long notes and blending well. I am not sure it ends up being the most interesting musical effect to my modern ears; in fact, I wondered if it would have been appropriate to extemporize a bit over the long notes.
The next movement is a 2-part "Caproccio" with 2 subjects, and Onofri's double-stopping is sublimely done; it sounds just perfect, as does his feisty style with the entire thing. This is a sonata where me might picture Veracini as the guy jumping out of a window. There's plenty of flavor Imaginarium adds to the notes off the page.
Drama is not absent, either, from the Bonporti sonata. Here, Bonporti, like the other composers here, have pretty much adopted a modern tonal system, but still borrow from alternate notes in the minor mode to add color to their lines. The final movement, a Corrente, is plenty noisy to make a fitting ending to an excellent recital. Most of the pieces are not well known to me; even if you do own them in alternate versions, I have doubts they are better than these.
I've often considered Onofri one of my favorite baroque violinists; an album like this, however, certainly has me convinced that he's likely the greatest baroque specialist alive today. A musician who possesses an excellent technique along with an ability to emotionally project with great style a wide range of music is a special, rare combination.