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Vivaldi, Telemann & Sammartini: Baroque Recorder Concertos

Pamela Thorby (recorder), Trio Sonnerie
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Recording details: August 2001
The National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret's Church, York, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: April 2004
Total duration: 68 minutes 52 seconds

Virtuoso recorder player Pamela Thorby presents a collection of works by Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Giuseppe Sammartini. All three composers, alive across the 17th and 18th centuries, had a notable interest in woodwinds as solo instruments and here is their foremost repertoire for recorder.


'The music trips off Thorby's tongue with the utmost fluency, cleanly articulated, and without any trace of the distressing sagging or wavering of pitch on long notes that haunts too many otherwise laudable performances by some others' (Gramophone)

'Thorby meets these challenges with aplomb, playing throughout with a supple finesse and deft authority, while Sonnerie offer agile and sensitive support. A delightful disc' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

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The three concertos for flautino by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) have been controversial since they were first published in the Vivaldi complete works in the early 1950s. Until recently, the major talking point was their instrumentation: what was a flautino? The original editor of the concertos, the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, published them without comment for ottavino, the modern Italian word for the piccolo. But recorder enthusiasts soon took notice, pointing out that flautino is the diminutive of flauto, which in the Baroque period meant recorder rather than flute: thus a flautino was presumably a small size of recorder. Moreover, the keys of the concertos, C major and A minor, are much better suited to the recorder than to any size of Baroque flute. But which small recorder? Here the problems start, because the range of the solo part fits the sopranino recorder in f” well—except for an e” in a solo section of the Concerto in A minor, RV445, and a few other notes in the ritornellos that go below the sopranino’s compass. Could the recorder have been a soprano in c” or d” (known in England as the fifth flute and sixth flute, respectively)? Possibly, but the solo part would lie extremely high on either of them. A Baroque piccolo (lowest note d”) might have been able to handle the range and the high tessitura, but the keys are more suitable for the recorder, and the piccolo does not seem to have been invented until the late 1730s—a little late for our concertos. As for the flageolet, a duct flute with six finger holes rather than the recorder’s eight, neither size (lowest notes d” or g”) would apparently have had the range or the compass. Most scholars therefore agreed, for the time being, that a flautino was probably a sopranino recorder and that Vivaldi, composing hastily, just slipped up in writing those notes below its compass.

A new wrinkle emerged in 1986, with the publication of Peter Ryom’s thematic catalogue of Vivaldi’s instrumental works. In his commentary on the autograph manuscript of the flautino concerto in A minor, RV445 (not included on our recording), he notes that ‘on the first page of the manuscript, Vivaldi has inscribed the following words: L’Istromti alla 4a Bassa; the exact interpretation of this has not been determined’. Now, the phrase means ‘the instruments a fourth lower’, and Vivaldi wrote something similar on the manuscript of the flautino concerto: Gl’Istromti transporti alla 4a (‘the instruments transposed a fourth’). No such indication is found on the manuscript of the third flautino concerto, RV444, but nevertheless, scholars began to sit up. Did Vivaldi really mean for all the instruments in these two concertos to be transposed down a fourth? Such a practice was common in Italian music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when its purpose was to facilitate the reading of music in the common clefs of the time; but what would be its purpose here? One scholar-performer, Winfried Michel, has taken Vivaldi at face value and published editions of all three concertos transposed down a fourth for soprano recorder, arguing that this takes full advantage of the stringed instruments by making use of the lowest string of the violins and viola and the lowest two notes of the cello.

The most thorough discussion of both flautino concerto puzzles has come from an Italian scholar, Federico Maria Sardelli, in a book on Vivaldi’s flute and recorder music published in 2001. Sardelli demonstrates that the flageolet lived in a different social world than the recorder, and that Vivaldi did specify it once under the name flasolet, so he clearly knew it and distinguished it from any kind of recorder. From his knowledge of Vivaldi’s general practice, Sardelli states that the composer often wrote notes in the ritornellos of his concertos that the solo instrument could not play, relying on the performer to leave them out or transpose them appropriately. He also believes that the one note below the compass of the sopranino recorder in a solo section was an oversight, and he points out several instances in sequential passage work in which Vivaldi deliberately avoided going below f”. Thus Sardelli has no doubt that for Vivaldi, flautino meant small recorder and normally a sopranino. Again drawing on Vivaldi’s practice, Sardelli notes that by ‘Gl’istromenti’ the composer meant not all the instruments, but only the orchestra parts. The concept of writing the recorder part in another key from the orchestra, or in other words treating it as a transposing instrument, was common in England, where the notation assumed that the player was reading a part as if it were intended for an alto recorder. (This concept is found, for example, in the manuscript of the Sammartini concerto performed on our recording, in which the soprano recorder part is notated a fourth higher than the orchestra.) In conclusion, Vivaldi intended RV443 and 445 for the soprano recorder—at least, in one particular performance—and RV444 for the sopranino recorder. The present recording follows these intentions. Pamela Thorby had in fact already been playing RV443 down a fourth on the soprano recorder for several years before she discovered the evidence outlined above. She feels that in doing so the violins have a more fluent range, and the presence of more open strings makes the sound of the ensemble richer.

In the flautino concertos, and even more so in the C minor recorder concerto also performed here, Vivaldi invented a new virtuoso language for the instrument, unprecedented in the work of his contemporaries: the English composers who wrote Vivaldian concerts (Babell, Baston and Woodcock) wrote largely stepwise passage work of little difficulty. In Vivaldi, however, the whirlwind arpeggios, leaps and pedal tones are modelled on the violin’s string-crossing technique. Passing trills are plentiful, and the frequent slurred groupings are unlike anything found before in woodwind history, in which virtually all notes had been separately tongued. If there remains any doubt that the recorder was (and is) a serious musical instrument, these concertos should put paid to it. Yet they are not just technical exercises, but full of surprise and delight.

In RV444 the ritornello sections of the fast movements are cut to a minimum, allowing the solo instrument full scope in the relatively extended solo sections. In the slow movement in the relative minor (A minor), the soloist is given an elaborately ornamented melody line containing some of the same devices as the fast movements (trills, rapid scales and triplets) over pizzicato semiquavers in the strings. RV443 has a more striking melodic profile and the passage work is at least as brilliant. Nevertheless, the most memorable movement is perhaps the slow one, marked merely Largo, but in fact andelaborately ornamented Siciliano in the unexpected key of E minor (relative minor of the dominant).

Vivaldi’s great C minor concerto is the most virtuosic recorder composition of the Baroque era, eclipsing even the flautino concertos because of the key (which requires many cross-fingerings). Sardelli rightly calls it “the most profound, elaborate, and inspired work of Vivaldi’s destined for the recorder or flute.” He demonstrates that the composer created it by reworking a violin concerto in the same key, RV202, dated 1728 in the autograph manuscript and published by Le Cene in Amsterdam the following year as the fifth concerto in Opus 11. The method of reworking was a favourite of Vivaldi’s: adapt the solo sections to the new instrument and write brand new ritornellos. In this case, he made the solo part shorter, replacing or omitting the most violinistic passages (such as an entire solo section of demisemiquaver string-crossing in the third movement), and modifying those passages he kept intact to fit the recorder’s compass, by skirting around the forays onto the violin’s G-string, transposing up an octave and avoiding g”’ (which his recorder player evidently did not play). He also expanded the last movement from 2/4 to 3/4 time, often repeating the figure from the second beat of the bar on the third beat. Nevertheless, the concerto belies its origins, the wistful and subdued ritornellos contrasting with the brilliant solo sections, which often make striking use of the harmonic minor scale.

Which recorder virtuoso (or virtuosa) of Vivaldi’s acquaintance would have been capable of performing such concertos (as well as the trio sonata in A minor, RV86, for recorder, bassoon and basso continuo)? They all seem to date from the late 1720s or early 1730s, which would put them far beyond the famous women musicians of the Venetian orphanage, Pio Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi had taught 1703–1718. Scholars have suggested that the performer in question might have been Giuseppe Sammartini, whom we shall also meet in this recording. The famous flautist Johann Joachim Quantz, visiting Venice in 1726, heard both Sammartini and Vivaldi play. If our Vivaldi works stem from the late 1720s, then the dates might just work for Sammartini as the dedicatee: he left Milan for London in 1728 or early 1729.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) played the recorder himself and wrote more music for the instrument than probably any other composer in history: duets, solo sonatas, trio sonatas, quartets, concertos, suites and cantatas, as well as obbligato parts in a vast repertoire of vocal works that we have hardly explored. In 1936, towards the beginning of the twentieth-century Telemann renaissance, Eulenburg published an edition of a ‘Suite in A minor for flute and string orchestra’ which rapidly became the composer’s most widely performed composition. Modern flautists took it up with alacrity, but again recorder players soon took note: Telemann called for fluto, a Baroque word for recorder rather than flute, and the key and the compass of the solo part fit the treble recorder perfectly. By the 1960s, the suite had become the most widely performed work by any composer for recorder and orchestra. If the Vivaldi concertos have now edged ahead of it in recorded performances, it is because of the modern recorder professionals’ love of display. Nevertheless, Telemann’s suite is not without its own technical challenges, and it was clearly intended for a professional—presumably one at the Hesse court in Darmstadt, in whose library the manuscript is found today.

Telemann actually called the work an Ouverture, the designation for a French-style overture followed by a suite of dances. But if we are expecting a standard pattern of dances such as allemande, sarabande, courante and gigue, we are in for a surprise. Rather, Telemann treats us to a mixture of movements such as we could not find in the works of any other late Baroque composer. He was the leading proponent of a mixed style of composition that blended French, Italian, and German elements. And what set him further apart from his contemporaries was his use of elements of ‘Polish and Moravian [folk] music in their true barbaric beauty’ (autobiography, 1740), which he had heard during his stint as Kapellmeister in Sorau in 1705-08. Telemann was also the pioneer of a mixed type of work which the critic Johann Adolf Scheibe called Concertouverture (concerto-suite)—a suite with parts for one or more concertante instruments (in our case, of course, the recorder) in addition to the customary strings.

The overture to the A minor suite commences in that French manner invented by Jean-Baptiste Lully, all courtly dotted notes and ornaments played by the recorder and strings together, then a fast section in four-part counterpoint. The texture is simplified to usher in the Italianate recorder, whose three concerto-like solo sections become longer and more impassioned. Les Plaisirs (the pleasures) is a capricious French dance movement with a hint of Polish folk music about it. After a first part for strings, the recorder has the trio accompanied by basso continuo alone. Then follows an ‘air in the Italian style’, like the slow movement of some magnificent concerto, with a twisting, turning melody line and many chromatic surprises. But the biggest surprise is the sudden transformation of the movement into an Allegro, with passage work reminiscent of Telemann’s recorder sonatas over a simple accompaniment. The first section then returns da capo.

The ensuing Menuet for the strings has an angular melody and an alternation of emphasis between first and second beats. The recorder dominates the trio, which has the character of a double, or ornamental variation, although the harmonic scheme is altered, and the style again owes as much to Poland as to France or Italy. The next movement, Réjouissance, rejoices with lively snippets passed between strings and soloist as well as contrasting passage work for the recorder, at first stepwise leading to a climax on g”’ (the note that Vivaldi avoided), then arpeggios. A pair of sprightly Passepieds follows the pattern of the Menuets heard earlier: a first dance played by the strings alone, then a trio for the recorder, this time accompanied by the basso continuo and, for the only time in the work, switching to the parallel major key (A major). The last movement is a Polonaise, a Polish dance far removed from the civilized examples of Chopin over a century later. The folk style comes to the fore in the snapping rhythms of the strings and the recorder’s repeated notes and winding, slurred groups of semiquavers, like some inspired tavern fiddler warming to his task.

Giuseppe Sammartini (1695-1750), a native of Milan, emigrated to England in late 1728 or early 1729. The son of an émigré French oboist, Sammartini was considered to be perhaps the finest oboist of his day. As an occasional member of the London opera orchestras, he would also have been called upon to play the recorder and flute, for obbligatos in special arias. From 1736 until the end of his life, he served as music master to Augusta, the Princess of Wales. His lyrical concerto for fifth flute (soprano recorder), which survives in a manuscript in Sweden, was presumably written for the composer himself to play in the 1730s. In the public concerts of London, and in the mini-concerts known as ‘entertainments’ given in the intervals of plays, concertos for small recorders had been all the rage since about 1715. The sound of a little recorder piping away above a string orchestra seems in fact to have given the recorder a new lease of life among professionals, although it had had been declining as an amateur instrument since about the same date. By the mid-1730s, the vogue for such concertos had ended and the recorder capitulated to the flute, although it was still played a little by amateurs until the end of the century.

The opening Allegro of Sammartini’s concerto is in the ritornello form pioneered by Vivaldi, but the ritornellos are lighter than Vivaldi’s, being made up of short phrases, galant in mood, over a simple, static bass line. During the opening ritornello the recorder comes in unexpectedly with a cadenza-like passage before being joined by the orchestra again with further motivic material leading to the expected cadence in the home key. The imaginative passage work in the two solo sections has deft chromatic touches and one unexpected modulation through a circle of fifths. This flurry of virtuosity is interrupted only by the briefest of second ritornellos, and the movement ends with the first ritornello da capo. The slow movement is a poignant Siciliano with an ornamented and rhythmically unpredictable melody line, again displaying attractive chromatic touches in an almost empfindsam style. Two orchestral sections, one long one brief, frame the soloist’s discourse. The final Allegro assai is in 6/8 time. If the opening figures suggest that the movement is going to be a giga, the syncopations soon make it more rhythmically complex. Sammartini again interrupts the first ritornello with a kind of cadenza for the recorder, then allows the soloist to stretch out with brilliant trills, rapid triplets and leaps, once more with some delightful chromaticism.

David Lasocki © 2004

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