Geminiani: Concerti Grossi op. 7
Geminiani: concertos (op. 7), H. 115-H.120, performed by Café Zimmermann (Alpha, 2018).
This is Francesco Geminiani's third collection of string concertos and today his least well-known collection. Viola player Patricia Gagnon writes in the liner notes:
What a wonderful surprise it was to study and record Geminiani’s op.7! In this strangely little-played set of concertos, I discovered an infinite variety of forms and colours, totally unpredictable every time, from one concerto to another and even from one movement to another. It’s a magnificent opus, a world that I’m very glad to be able to share with others through this recording.
When I think of a "quirky" baroque composer my first choice is always Jan Zelenka. Within such a typical soundworld he gave us some rather jarring jumps and themes and in the end you're not offended; instead the effect is one of mild humor. Geminiani's first and second forays into this genre were more traditional, echoing the harmonic stability of, say, Arcangelo Corelli. In this collection, his themes and harmmonic progressions are less familiar and less expected. And for those reasons the music is interesting.
Alpha's recording of Valetti's and Frisch's orchestra is clear and seems appropriately miked to me. The solo parts come through clear and the rest of the orchestra has a touch of "audio bokeh" to it, but nothing too extreme. The performances sometimes stike me on the conservative side (take, for instance, the tempo in track 8, Allegro of the D minor concerto, H. 117). There's room in that performance for more fire and drive. The chosen tempo and adopted style in track 14, another Allegro, is overall more fitting, I think. The playful movement has less of the gravitas present in the earlier piece. Both examples, however, enjoy a wide stereo separation in the recording which makes the separation between first and second parts especially delicious.
By the time we gert to the B-flat concerto, H. 120, the presence of bassoon evokes the quirk of Zelenka for me. It's an especially nice addition to the baroque string orchestra color. The writing here gets especially surprising and the result for me, at least in 2018, is overt charm.
From the liner notes:
In many ways Geminiani is an enigmatic composer: his music is indeed irregular, unpredictable and capricious but at the same time melodious and completely natural when one listens to it. This paradox was nicely worded by the music lover Thomas Twining when he wrote in a letter to the music historian Charles Burney, as late as 16 October 1773: ‘The defect of melody you observe in him [=Geminiani] has often struck me, and made me wonder what it was that still made me like his music so well.’
It is precisely those defects which place this music in different company. I believe Cafe Zimmermann does an admirable job at performacne but the novelty of the music will likely sustain an additional number of possible rival performances too. I wouldn't wait, however, this one is certainly special enough to enjoy now.