Corelli, it seems, has been considered a "gold standard" among composers, at least historically speaking. His stature, combined with his publication of six collections of instrumental pieces, helped establish him as a significant personality who inspired allegiance and mimicry. Opuses 1-4 helped music historians define the chamber sonata in its da chiesa and da camera formats based on Corelli's "models," and his opus 5 violin sonatas with continuo and his opus 6 concerti grossi completed his "best" output, having help establish tonality and the theory behind good harmonic progression. So yes -- if you're into baroque music Corelli is a name to recognize. But why is so much of his music performed without special reverence?
I.e., why are some performances downright sleepy?
Every time I buy a new CD by Corelli, I'm hoping the new performance says something authentic. Like many a collector, I tend to buy music like wine lovers buy wine. If you get a good bottle by a certain producer (vigneron if they're French), you are very likely to buy from them again. "The 1999 was good, I'm hoping the 2004 will be good too!" Having just seen Ms. Beyer this year at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., I felt she has become a regular favorite of mine, with me having gone to see her after really likely a number of her CDs, including her solo Bach sonatas and partitas.
One of the things I admired about her Bach release was that she included a "bonus" piece - the Pisendel solo sonata. It's a great piece, and I've loved getting to know it through Anton Steck's recording on CPO. But her's is good too, and it's a nice little treat to have alongside Bach.
She's done the same thing here with Corelli, by including two WoOs (Work without Opus Number). Bonus!
She's also done something interesting with the forces she's used: she has chosen different soloists on violin to appear with her in the concertino which means each concerto gets a somewhat different "taste" depending on her partner. Each chosen does a good job, and I personally might not know the difference unless I was watching them. But that too was a feature: the recordings were made live at the Arsenal Hall in Metz, France.
There's a clear continuum in my head now of baroque performance practice and I find myself falling into the trap of saying "if it's on this side, it's good, and that side, not as much." I might even say at this point in the review something like this: "How does this new recording compare to some other, previous releases?" I mean, I own a few, and have heard even a few more. McGegan. Ensemble 415. Pinnock. Biondi. Savall (one example with Enrico Onofri). But maybe that's not the best approach towards a quality review. Instead of telling you how this release compares to all those others, let me instead just take three examples with some comments on each.
Sinfonia to the Oratorio Santa Beatrice, WoO 1 Harpsichord, organ, and lute continuo are all used with a warm string sound in the opening in a minor key with what I might describe as Corelli's typical harmonic language, complete with severe suspensions. The second movement presents a well-wrought theme with unison strings (no concertino solos) but here the ensemble gets slightly scrappy with a few of the instruments sticking out. That said, it's because of a well-captured performance that individual performers can be identified in the stereo presentation. The third movement is somewhat severe in character, building with more voices as it opens up contrapuntally. Here the concertino finally emerges, but the tempo for this whole movement for me is a tad too slow. The final movement, in the style of a gigue, continues with featuring the two violin soloists apart from the orchestra. While the techniques and harmonic flavor again reeks of Corelli, the movement is less well-wrought than his other concertos. The concertino violinists might have "saved" the movement with some extra special improvisation, but they pretty much followed the score from what I can tell.
Concerto #4 in D If energy was missing from the preceding work, it's in full form here. The sound quality is great - there's a clear delineation between concertino and ripieno, and the opening tempo is propelling everything forward with a lot of fun energy. Placing each of the two solo violins on either side of the stereo image was smart - the dialog between the two parts is most easily heard this way. As with the previous "sinfonia," there's some audible noises between movements that confirms the "live performance" aspect of the recording. For the second movement, something's just wrong for me... the tempo, the kind of detached notes the orchestra is playing, or the overly active harpsichord is bothering me. The solo violins that emerge from the final cadence really blew an opportunity to be a little more creative with their parts... the style was right, it was not just very "out there" as the CD calls itself.
The final two faster movements are presented well. The solo cello comes out of the texture too here as a member of the concertino. So far I'm getting the sense that GC and AB are more comfortable with the faster movements.
Concerto #8 in g, the so-called Christmas Concerto This is probably my favorite piece of the set, perhaps it's the fact it's in G minor, my favorite key. The opening takes off with good energy, and the next slow section is richly presented, and interpreted well. The next track, marked "Allegro," its a toe-tapper. The cello is clear and played well. In one instance, Beyer plays an ornament in her part and the second violin, who "echoes" the first violin, doesn't take up the same ornamentation. That's too bad; Beyer skips it in the restatement of the same phrase. The next track is a multipart set of tempo indications, and is what I'd likely say is the famous part of the concerto---and despite it being slower, they could have gone faster for me. Even the faster section in the middle seems like it could have gone even a little faster. Nothing bad, really, but I'm wondering if the live performance aspect was holding them back in ways that a studio recording may have not.
The next Vivace is elegant. There's a lilt to the playing that is not at all typical, and it works.
The final Allegro and Pastorale starts to infuse some dynamic edge to the orchestra's sound, which is nice. I could probably go for a little more dynamic distinction across the board. The pastorale feels unnatural, somehow, with regards to tempo.
Conclusions This release was well-recorded and presents great transparency for the two violins in the concertino groups. The cello is less easily "out front," but listening with headphones makes it easier to pick the concertino cello out from the texture. There are times between phrases or changes in tempo that the orchestra feels a little bit unsure, or else the result is not as confident as it could be. Having seen Beyer in person as an expressive player, I know she's leading the ensemble from the violin. Yet, the ensemble does not have the tight integration that might be possible with a dedicated conductor. This is not a big issue, however, and is likely only to be perceived in a small number of spots, by someone lending their full concentration to the music.
The ensemble has a good sound and they can play well together at fast tempos. Some slow movements can drag just a bit, but this is likely a taste issue for me. Nothing is done to such an extreme to be distasteful.
This release is an overall good presentation that betters Pinnock, for me, for it's more transparent recording and faster tempos for some of the Allegros and Vivacis. However, in some of the slower movements, the old English Concert gives GC a run for their money in string richness. Their more "wet" acoustic is a big component of this difference. GC, instead, sounds fresh and too benefits from the inconsistencies of a live performance in terms of ornamentation and tempo variations. It's actually refreshing when it happens. Biondi is a favorite of many for his energy and playing style. There's no doubt that you can pick out his violin from the texture and he's the master of manipulating dynamics. But CG has better-matched soloists and the sound quality.
In the end the answer to avoiding sleepiness in performances, especially when listened to one concerto after another, is altering interpretive ideas. The best way to do that - and I've long enjoyed this with other composers' work too - is by creating a playlist to build your own "ultimate" version. Each set likely has something to offer. Beyer's isn't some new kind of "perfect, outdoes all the others!" recording. However, it is different enough to add value to owning yet another version of Corelli's opus 6. The recording's only shortfall is some unevenness in phrasing that appears in the slower movements. Some of the solo playing comes across as spontaneous which is wholly appropriate for a live performance.