Released on the Çedille label this year, the Trio Settecento has recorded the complete opus 2 collection by Francesco Maria Veracini, which I purchased through the iTunes Store. It normally would span 3 CDs.
It is fun to follow along with the music if you’re a reader of music. Included in the link is the cover page of the publication, noting that the release was published by the author in both Florence and in London. The beginning of the book also outlines as few uses of symbols Veracini has included in the score. The score has been engraved by hand which was an innovation born earlier in the century, and makes for very easy reading. (They did not, however, follow modern practices on how to line up the beats of the measure between the violin part and the bass part, but in general, it’s a very clean score.) Instead of following dance forms or a suite approach, the sonatas oscillate between different moods via tempos and writing style (solo violin, versus the two parts together) in a quasi-phantasticus style. For a late Italian baroque composer, this is somewhat backward looking, but there’s no confusing Veracini’s style or language for, say, the works of the early Italian baroque, such as Castello. He’s clearly writing in a modern, post-Corelli style. And he’s well-affirmed his status as a virtuoso composer early on in the enterprise, by using a number of violin techniques, from wide crescendos on held notes, tremolo, trills, and double-stopping. Then after all that in at a slow tempo passes, he’s on for some break-neck fast passages that would no doubt dazzle those in attendance.
Veracini does not specify what instruments might play the bass line, but figurations of course suggest that something would be filling-in the harmony, and Trio Settecento opts for a more or less standard cello and harpsichord duo. I do believe Veracini is expecting at least two instruments, as he does use an “S” symbol to denote when the line should be played by one player (solo). Overall, the trio is captured well, although I do detect a change in microphone setup between different sonatas, which also has an effect on the sound quality and overall volume. It’s not a huge deal unless you plan on listening to all of your Veracini in one stretch marathon.
A few of these sonatas are familiar to me, having been recorded by other artists, but this is my first purchase of the complete collection. The Locatelli Trio with Wallfisch had recorded this earlier completely, but having auditioned some familiar tracks, I thought it worth of purchase. The violinist Rachel Barton Pine is a very competent player, and in general plays with real confidence and good intonation. It might be unfair, but typically I have focused a lot of purchasing dollars on European artists over the years, and it is welcome to find an American-based ensemble that plays this well. That said, what’s the verdict?
I have a feeling I know why Veracini’s complete set isn’t often recorded in full. Taken sonata by sonata, there’s some interesting flavor and enough challenges for the performer to stay interesting; but one after the other, they tend to bleed together in our heads, revealing to me, at least, that while Veracini has an important place in musical history, he’s simply not of the same caliber as, say, Vivaldi, Handel, or Bach. That is not to say he was a hack, but that simply we have A-list composers and B-list composers, and each can provide us with entertainment. Not all will bring us profound moments of aural ecstasy.
As a point of closer examination, I’ll examine an already familiar sonata, the fifth from the collection, which opens the second disc. It opens with a dramatic line for the bass, and the cello in this recording dominates, which is fine. The next contrasting section played slowly, for me, is too slow. With the longer notes played “as is” by the violin, I’m at a lack for finding something of real interest to follow. Another performance might push through that section of contrast a little faster, perhaps, but my guess is that what’s really called for is improvisation by the violinist. In this sonata specifically, Veracini writes “con grandissima gravita” - with the greatest depth or gravitas… those long notes are top-hatted with his symbols for expressive crescendos, but I still think the section is calling out for some runs and maybe even some ad hoc ornamentation.
But that’s my criticism — the trio does an exceptional job at the faster movements, the continuo team is rock-solid together, with good balance with the violin. If I were to position them with a style, I’d say they are more dynamic performers than an British-oriented ensemble such as the Locatelli Trio (reborn Convivium), but not to the more daring, by the seat of your pants approach by today’s Italian violinists. They approach that land of performance plenty of times, they simply never over-indulge. I find the style, along that continuum, to be very appropriate for this repertoire and still plenty of fun on the entertainment side of what Veracini offers us.
In the end, I highly recommend this release. Veracini was clever enough a violinist to embed a lot for us to notice in each sonata. I’d just recommend taking one or at most two at time for study and for entertainment. And as far as my first recording by Trio Settecento, I look forward to more!