Domenico Gallo - 12 Sonate
There’s a lot of novelty in this recording, covering two CDs, by the ensemble Concerto Melante performing music by the Venetian baroque composer Domenico Gallo. The twelve sonate a quattro were written for a chamber orchestra. They’re not quite “concerti grossi” in the style of Corelli’s, but they’re not strictly all ripieno either. The notes point out this is a world premiere recording.
This is my first recording by the Berlin-based Concerto Melante (named, we learn, after Telemann, re-utilizing the letters of his surname to form an Italian-sounding word). The adventure of exploring the work of an otherwise unknown composer from this period (mid-eighteenth century Venice) and knowing the music hasn’t yet been recorded, was enough to earn my interest.
But the appearance in the ensemble of several instruments (read: yes, the instruments, not the performers playing them) as having been previously owned by one Reinhard Goebel really piqued my interest. And then to learn that Goebel had discovered the music and presented it to director Raimar Orlovsky, made the generation of this recording and collaboration even more interesting. Further research has demonstrated a previously-established relationship with the musicians. Add to all of that another new friend of Goebel, violinist Johannes Pramsohler, and ex-MAK players such as Léon Berben and Katharina Wolff…
There is something to be said about a tradition (here, of discovering new gems from the past, akin to MAK’s recording and “discovery” of the concertos by Johann David Heinichen) passing on (in spirit, in value and culture) and we are the recipients of this torch-passing. As much as I love hearing new performances of music different from ones I already own, there’s also a joy to be had in exploring “new” music for the first time. Some of these discoveries stick with us (the Heinichen is an apt example) but others are less sticky. What do we make of Gallo and these performances?
The concertino is focused in the recording; when the solo instruments emerge from the texture, there is a real intimacy, especially around the continuo, and specifically the harpsichord and theorbo. But when the full ensemble is playing, the sound signature of the Andreaskirche Berlin-Wannsee is revealed. Looking at images online of the church, it’s not an overly large church, and quite small compared to a cathedral. It’s that weird kind of space that isn’t dry like a recording studio, nor really wet with a lot of decay like a, well, cathedral or large concert hall.
There is the urge, I’m sure, to use spaces that have some historical background to them. That is, in Venice in 1764, you were more likely to hear this music in such a space like this, over, say, an outdoor environ or a small interior chamber.
Yet I often find recording in churches (save for the recording of organ music or cantatas) to be problematic. And we can get philosophical about this, and I think I should. Because I often want to say something about this in many reviews but stop short of offering this level of criticism, when, I understand, the choice of where to record is very much a financial one and is sometimes outside the control of the musicians. (To be fair, the producers and recording engineers get their name in the program too. So they can share in the feedback, whether its glowing or suggesting room for improvement.)
I’m not convinced that spaces created for music making (and one could argue the primary design of any church may not be for the aesthetic enjoyment of music) with a live audience make the best places for making a recording, which to some, may be a strange conclusion to make. Churches are acoustically interesting spaces, especially the large ones. And they sound different (as do concert halls) when they are filled with people from when they are empty. And it’s not lost on me that the purpose of music for so many years had little to do with optimizing the sound; our pursuit of “perfect sound” seems today to be a very late twentieth-century, contemporary pursuit. But since the quality of what we hear is so different between recordings, it becomes one of the variables we have to help us distinguish between the good, better, and best as a consumer of recorded music.
And I have to say I wish this music had been recorded in an acoustical environment that might have afforded the engineer tighter control over the result. As a general rule, with a lot of baroque instrumental music, I like a focused, closely-miked sound. And as I note, the solo players are captured very well (that front-row type of sound), but the sound of all those original instruments (alongside a dozen other makers) is somewhat smeared. In the end, this recording typifies an issue in recorded music wherein we are stuck with one sound world that may ideally fit our listening setup (headphones versus speakers), preferences, or historical constraints (if we’re interested in playing within those constraints).
The pieces are written four-movement parts (slow-fast, slow-fast). As is mentioned in the liner notes, Gallo didn’t seem terribly interested in purely emulating his peers. His style is perhaps aimed backward (given his age, born in 1730), but his style is fresh and there are some genuinely rich moments to be had. He’s not a Albinoni or Vivaldi clone. And there is some flavor of modernity in his writing, offering some movements very focused on strong melodic lines.
I wanted to comment on the performance using two pieces as the touch points: the Sonata no. 9 in D minor and the Sonata no. 12 in G minor, La Folia. The grave opening of the 9th sonata (Adagio), made dramatic by unison music punctuated with space, is perhaps too transparent. The space between punctuations reveals the lackluster acoustic. The release at 9-10 seconds into the track has a messy release; all players don’t silence at the same time.
The feisty Allegro is full bodied with dramatic dynamic shifts. I can’t say if its the acoustic or the ensemble, but there’s certainly room for even a little more dynamic contrast. The tempos are all well-chosen. Gallo is writing, for the most part, in two parts. Harmonies among the parts fill things in, but following the music is easy on the listener; the music isn’t overly complex.
Save for the release mentioned above, the ensemble produces a cohesive sound.
La Folia - a “dance” theme of supposed Spanish origins, was so popular that many composers adopted it for pieces of music. Gallo’s is preceded by a small introduction. The ensemble’s sound is full-bodied in the louder sections. They do a good job at differentiating in dynamics between phrases, but there’s room for more dynamics within a phrase, I felt.
The series of variations, repeated each time, is ripe for a little more artistic variation, if you ask me. And therein lies another philosophical debate: is it our job to rescue the piece from what’s left on the page, injecting more variation (say, by, switching between full ensemble and soloists) or is the text otherwise quite clear on not exercising that option? I can’t say, I don’t have the score.
While the recorded sound is not bad, the distance at which the whole ensemble sat from the mikes and the resulting acoustical smearing that took place is but one small quibble in an otherwise well-produced recording. And it may well be unimportant to you. Could the ensemble or soloists injected a little more imagination into the mix? Yes, but it isn’t unheard of ensembles taking the more conservative approach in recordings. (Whether or not you agree with the artistic approach in Il Giardino Armonico’s recording of Handel’s concertos on Decca, that is the style I am thinking of here. Gallo’s music I think will improve with a little more Italian flair.)
In terms of Gallo, our composer, he is admittedly not the equal of Antonio Vivaldi. Yet that’s not to say his music shouldn’t be heard. His musical style to my ears is deliberately clear and offers us a fresh voice from the Venetian baroque. Something tells me this won’t last for long as the only recording of these works.