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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Concerti grossi, Op.6 (1712)
Concerto grosso, Op.6/1 in D [11:36]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/2 in F [9:56]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/3 in c minor [9:53]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/4 in D [9:40]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/5 in B-flat [10:24]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/6 in F [12:26]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/7 in D [9:19]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/8 in g minor ‘fatto per la notte di Natale’ (‘Christmas’ concerto) [13:59]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/9 in F [8:47]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/10 in C [12:26]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/11 in B-flat [9:36]
Concerto grosso, Op.6/12 in F [10:16]
The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, March and April 1987 and Abbey Wood Studios, January 1988. DDD.
Pitch = 415Hz. Tuning: unequal temperament. Period instruments.
Presto CDR
ARCHIV 4749072 [2 CDs: 129:11]

This is a doubly historic set; it was Corelli’s Op.6 concertos that firmed up the form of the concerto grosso which, in turn, led to the development of the great solo concertos of the classical and romantic periods. Though published in 1712, it’s probable that the music had been composed over a period of many years, perhaps as early as the 1680s, and edited by Corelli for the publication. An embryonic version of the ‘Christmas’ concerto, No.8, seems to have been performed in 1690 and contemporaries had already published concertos in the Corelli style.

Had there been no Corelli Op.6, there might well have been no Vivaldi Op.8, including the Four Seasons, or Bach Brandenburg Concertos. Was it mere coincidence that Handel’s most developed concerti grossi were published as Op.6?  And it was these award-winning DG Archiv recordings from the 1980s which helped to consolidate period performance in the music of this period, so I’m doubly pleased that Presto have made them once again available on special CDRs, in addition to the download-only set, 4594512, which costs a little less but comes without booklet. The 2-CD set costs £15.75, the download, also from Presto in lossless sound, £12.90. Other dealers charge more for the download.

There’s also a single-CD 65-minute download selection, but it costs almost as much as the complete set, so it seems rather pointless. If you just want an inexpensive single album, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are a better bet in Nos.7-12 (Harmonia Mundi Classical Express HCX3957015, target price £5 in lossless sound) is a better bet.

Presto have already released the I Musici recordings of these concertos, rather more expensive than the Pinnock set and less recommendable (Philips 4563262). Though released as a set in 1990, I Musici's recordings were made in the mid 1960s.  If you wish to hear how the new, leaner and more authentic I Musici sound, try their Concerti Romani, which includes Op.6/4 and music from his Roman Heritage (Dynamic CDS7752 – Spring 2018/1).

Corelli’s music was especially appreciated in England, where composers like Charles Avison made their own concerti grossi out of movements from Corelli’s sonatas; several recordings of these have been made, especially by the eponymous Avison Ensemble (Naxos and Divine Art – review). A recent Harmonia Mundi recording brings performances by la Rêveuse of music heard in London c.1720 and influenced by Corelli, including a Sonata by Geminiani and two by Handel (HMM905332). I've had time only for a first run-through of that recording, as downloaded in 24-bit sound, with pdf booklet from eclassical.com, but I'm impressed.

Back in the mists of time I got to know Corelli’s Op.6 from a Supraphon recording of four of them, made by the Ars Rediviva – rather a de-luxe gatefold offering considering that it cost just 17/6 (£0.87) and offered performances on modern instruments with some sense of period style but much heavier than I should like now. There had been recordings of Op.6/8, the ‘Christmas’ concerto, the earliest published by the Gramophone Society in 1927, in an edition by Frank Bridge. That was followed in 1929 by a Brunswick recording featuring the London Chamber Orchestra and A Bernard. The Gramophone reviewer noted that ‘the scale of the playing seems, at times, too large for music of such delicate sensibility’, but liked ‘the lovely pastoral piece at the end’. They don’t write like that anymore, but it would be interesting to hear those early recordings.

Most of the earlier recordings either deeply sentimentalised or overwhelmed the music and now sound intolerable. Recordings like that of Ars Rediviva and, later, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Neville Marriner, a set on which Trevor Pinnock appeared, didn’t mark the end of the overblown performance. A 1971 recording of the Corelli Op.6/8 and other Christmas concertos from the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan – which I mistakenly bought in a sale – continued the bad old tradition. Amazingly, that’s still available as a download; it costs only £6.94 in lossless sound, but don’t be tempted by the price (DG Galleria, or Karajan – The Christmas Album, DG, also an inexpensive download).

It was Pinnock and his team, however, who helped us to understand the full quality of these concertos. That’s partly due to his overall direction from the keyboard and partly to the quality of the playing of The English Concert, not least the concertino team of Simon Standage, Micaela Comberti and Jaap ter Linden. Everything is in place, right down to the theorbo playing of Nigel North – I think, the first time that I knew what the theorbo was.

Nor are the performances merely a musicologist’s delight. Though the impression is of liveliness where appropriate, the tempi are not breakneck, and the effect is as much of dignity and affection as of pace. Technically, only the final four concertos are of the da camera type, with dance movements, but there’s never a dull moment in the first eight concerti da chiesa.

There’s even a greater degree of vibrato than the outright historic-performance school would normally countenance, but it’s never excessive. Compare Pinnock with Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra – I suppose he had to come in somewhere as marking the transition from the old style – in the ‘Christmas’ Concerto, No.8, and there’s hardly any difference in tempo. Pinnock actually takes the opening vivace – grave and the fifth movement allegro a shade slower than Münchinger, and he’s only seconds faster in the closing pastorale depicting the shepherds’ visit to the infant Jesus, an emotionally moving performance without undue sentimentality. The Münchinger, which appeared in 1961 on an LP of popular baroque music – the Pachelbel Kanon, etc. – may have been slightly ahead of its time in many respects, but the Stuttgart players use very generous vibrato.

Pinnock’s performances have held up very well in the intervening years and this is still one of my recordings of choice, but it isn’t the only choice. Bargain lovers will be well served by Roy Goodman and the Brandenburg Consort on a two-for-one Hyperion Dyad recorded in 1992 (CDD22011). Order direct from Hyperion and both the CDs and the lossless download with pdf booklet cost just £8.00.

Another recording well worth consideration comes from the Avison Ensemble on Linn. Since I reviewed their set on SACD, it’s been reissued on CD only, albeit at full price rather than effectively 2-for-1 as before (CKR411). Fans of hi-res sound can, however, download it in 24/192 from linnrecords.com. That was the first of a distinguished series of Corelli recordings from this ensemble and my review lists a number of very fine alternatives – rather than repeat the list, I’ll direct you to the link above.

I should also mention Amandine Beyer and Gli Incogniti (Zig Zag ZZT327 – review). That’s currently download only, £15 in lossless sound or £18 in 24-bit, with Amazon offering the CDs for £28.88, but the Outhere group have a habit of reissuing 2-CD recordings from their stable at budget price, so worth looking out for.

The DG recording quality has held up as well as the performances, which means that the Presto special CDs remain very competitive. Several alternatives are also worth considering: the Marriner for those who prefer modern instruments played with a sense of period style, on a download-only twofer (Double Decca 4438622, around £10 in lossless sound). Even less expensive, on CD or download, is the Hyperion Dyad, with period performances as stylish as Pinnock’s. The main competition comes from the Linn recording, but its competitive pricing and SACD availability no longer apply, and the hi-res download is quite expensive. All in all, unless you must have hi-res sound, Pinnock and Goodman remain as recommendable as any.

Brian Wilson



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