One of the reasons for the extraordinary popularity of Corelli’s Concerti grossi lies in their protean quality: you can jettison the ripieno parts and play these works as intimate trios, or you can scale them up – as we know the composer himself did on special occasions.
His contemporary Georg Muffat describes Corelli performing his Concerti grossi in Rome ‘by a large number of players’; wind instruments – trumpets and trombones – were added for special feast days or celebrations. Today, therefore, there are recordings to suit all tastes: from intimate, chamber accounts to performances that take on an almost symphonic scale, like Modo Antiquo’s – complete with wind instruments – or Ensemble 415’s grandiose readings (both versions sadly let down by their recorded sound). When building a library, then, one would ideally select three or four different approaches in order to appreciate the endless possibilities of these works.
The best recording of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi
Amandine Beyer (director)
If pressed to choose just one, I would plump for the exuberant accounts by the 18-strong period-instrument ensemble Gli Incogniti, directed by hotshot violinist Amandine Beyer. Recorded in concert in 2012, these performances have a thrilling spontaneity that sets them apart from other, studio recordings (though they may be a little rougher round the edges as a result). Gli Incogniti’s sheer range of expression brilliantly conveys the scope of Corelli’s art: majestic adagios give way to sinewy fast movements, stately fugues contrast with balletic dances. The interplay between the concertino and ripieno is scintillating, and mercurial changes of colour, timbre and mood respond to the emotional ‘affects’ of different keys.
My one caveat is that some of the fast movements are a shade breathless and rather flamboyantly virtuosic for Corelli (the ‘Allemanda’ of No. 11 almost becomes a concerto for solo cello). Yet there’s nobility aplenty here too, and slow movements take an aptly broad sweep without being ponderous. The famous ‘Pastorale’ movement of the Christmas Concerto has just the right balance of rustic oomph and Marian sweetness.
Zigzag’s spacious sound transports you from the rather prosaic 1970s Arsenal in Metz (where the discs were recorded) to resonant Roman Baroque churches and palaces; strategically placed microphones pick out the many lovely embellished details. In short, these accounts brim with unbridled energy and joie-de-vivre.
Three other great recordings of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi
Roy Goodman (director)
(Hyperion CDD 22011)
Corelli’s Op. 6 was instantly popular in England and there are several excellent versions by British ensembles. The Brandenburg Consort’s 1992 recording is directed with grace and panache by violinist Roy Goodman. His 19 players offer refined performances, tempos are sensitively judged and dance movements are delightfully lithe. The continuo realisations on organ or harpsichord and archlute add variegated colours and textures. If there’s an occasional wiriness to the violin sound, it doesn’t seriously detract from these felicitous accounts.
Pavlo Beznosiuk (director)
Linn CKD 411
Thanks to the unassuming direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, The Avison Ensemble captures the subtle graciousness of Corelli’s style. There’s a real sense of chamber music in their alert exchanges and spirited banter, and in the exquisite details of the continuo realisations and embellishments. Dance rhythms are light and fleet, while measured tempos in the slow movements convey the ‘majestic, solemn, and sublime’ qualities that Corelli’s contemporaries so admired. Linn’s airy 2018 recording allows you to wallow in full Baroque splendour.
Trevor Pinnock (director)
DG Archiv 459 4512
Recorded back in 1988, Pinnock’s intuitively musical accounts with The English Concert remain ever stylish. Pinnock directs with poised restraint throughout – though some movements remain a little earthbound and one could have wished for lighter articulation in the dances. There are teasing dialogues among the concertino soloists (Simon Standage, Micaela Comberti and Jaap ter Linden) and the ensemble’s sound is bright and silvery.
And one to avoid…
Cantilena’s performances from the early 1980s today sound anachronistic – not so much because they play on modern instruments but because of their highly Romanticised gestures: the strings quiver with an intrusive vibrato, dances are heavily ponderous, slow movements overly sentimental. Director Adrian Shepherd also takes extreme liberties with tempo – speeding up, then slowing down at cadences to exaggerated effect. There’s some sour intonation too.