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Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

Concerti Grossi Op 6

The Avison Ensemble
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Recording details: July 2011
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: October 2012
Total duration: 127 minutes 59 seconds

The UK's leading period instrument ensemble, The Avison Ensemble, presents the first recording in their series celebrating the chamber music of Arcangelo Corelli. Directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk the ensemble explores the inspirational works of the Italian composer, including a captivating interpretation of the much-loved Christmas Concerto.

This is the third album in The Avison Ensemble's critically acclaimed series of recordings with Linn, and the first in their celebration of Corelli's chamber music. Released to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of the composer the ensemble's greatly anticipated set will explore the six opera of the eminent Italian's chamber music: the concerti grossi, violin sonatas, chamber sonatas and church sonatas.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'These new performances are certainly part of the competition, supple and elegant, perfectly in harmony with the suave if at times austere character of the music and, above all, architecturally shaped with subtlety and finesse. Improvised ornamention has been added with discretion and care, and the sense of ensemble is faultless and, in the faster movements, breathtakingly impressive' (Gramophone)

'Under the assured and affable direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, the Avison Ensemble eschews the flashy bravura of some of its competitors in favour of a subtle graciousness that seems to capture the essence of Corelli's polished style. They point up the fleet dance rhythms with lightweight bowing and clean articulation, while more expansive playing and measured tempos in the slow movements convey the ‘majestic, solemn and sublime' qualities that Corelli's contemporaries so admired' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Arcangelo Corelli's 12 Concerti Grossi, Op 6, were published in 1714, a year after the composer's death. They form a cornerstone of later baroque repertoire, renowned for their polished finish, elegant turn of phrase and refined formal balance as much as for their contrasting of texture and dynamic, and their idiomatic string writing. Above all, they are seductively easy on the ear. The Avison Ensemble offer suave, personable performances, allowing this exquisitely engaging music to do its own work' (The Sunday Times)

'The Avison Ensemble's playing is never less than silky perfection, impeccably blended sound, and never a hair out of tune. Their interpretation is also faultless and the concertino team of Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding, Richard Tunnicliffe, Andrew Skidmore, Paula Chateauneuf and Roger Hamilton are all highly skilled and informed … a beautiful disc and the excellent sleeve notes add to its allure' (Early Music)

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There are few musical works that have enjoyed such a lasting fame as the six opera of the eminent Italian violinist Arcangelo Corelli. Even though his published works were few in number, and largely restricted to three genres, Corelli was to have a significant impact on the development of European classical music during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In addition, his music continued to be performed throughout the 18th century and in Britain, where Corelli’s works were held in particularly high esteem, his music never entirely disappeared from the repertory.

Arcangelo Corelli was born on 17 February 1653 in the small Italian town of Fusignano, situated thirty miles east of Bologna. His safe delivery, into a family of wealthy landowners, must have been a joyous occasion for he entered the world less than a month after the death of his father, in whose honour he was named. Little is known about Corelli’s youth, but it is believed that he received his first music lessons from a priest in the nearby town of Faenza; this was followed by a period of study at Lugo. No earlier than 1666 he went to Bologna, a large and prosperous cultural centre situated on the main trade routes between Milan and Venice to Rome. Here he studied the violin and, in 1670, was admitted to the Accademia Filarmonica, a musical institution founded by the Bolognese nobleman, Count Vincenzo Carrati. By 1675 Corelli had moved to Rome, where he appeared as a violinist in an orchestra assembled for a series of Lenten oratorios at the church of S Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Soon after, he entered the orchestra of S Luigi dei Francesi as the third of four violins; he quickly progressed through their ranks to become leader in 1682. Additionally, in 1679 he entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, then in the last of her four sojourns in Rome, as a chamber musician. In a letter, dated 13 May 1679, Corelli recorded that he was busy composing trio sonatas for the Queen and he subsequently dedicated his 1681 Op 1 sonatas to her. However, this post proved to be ephemeral as he was dismissed after Pope Innocent XI withdrew Queen Christina’s financial support. Between 1676 and 1679 Corelli had performed in another series of Lenten oratorios at S Marcello, a church under the patronage of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. Pamphili was one of the most eminent and wealthy artistic patrons of his time and, by 1684, Corelli had entered into his service; Corelli honoured this patron through the dedication of his 1685 Op 2 sonatas. As part of his duties, Corelli was a member of Pamphili’s orchestra; he also continued to take part in performances of oratorios in the city and played at the theatre.

Pamphili’s relocation to Bologna in 1690 to become papal legate gave another wealthy supporter of the arts, the Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, an opportunity to assume the patronage of Corelli, and he was to remain firmly established in Ottoboni’s household for the remainder of his life. Ottoboni’s relationship with Corelli was close; in fact, the Cardinal was more like a friend than an employer and Corelli honoured this patron through the dedication of his 1694 Op 4 sonatas. On 26 April 1706, Corelli wasadmitted, along with the virtuoso keyboard player Bernardo Pasquini and Alessandro Scarlatti, to the exclusive Arcadian Academy in Rome; on his admission, Corelli was given the title of ‘Arcomélo’ (the melodious bow). After 1708 Corelli began to retreat from public gaze as he busied himself with the composition, or more likely revision, of his concerti grossi. Corelli died on 8 January 1713 a rich man with a fine art collection of 142 paintings. He left the arrangements for his burial to Ottoboni, who had Corelli interred in the Pantheon. For several years the anniversary of his death was marked at that church by the solemn performances of his concertos.

Even though Corelli’s Op 6 concerti grossi are among his best known works, he neversaw them in print as they were published posthumously in 1714. Attached to the first edition was a dedication, dated 3 December 1712, to the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm. Although preparations for their issue were in an advanced state at Corelli’s death, it was left to one of his pupils, Matteo Fornari, to facilitate their release. Corelli had chosen Estienne Roger of Amsterdam as his publisher, and the two men had entered into a formal agreement on 21 April 1712. At this time, Roger already possessed some of Corelli’s concertos and was eager to publish the entire set. In return for their publication rights, Roger agreed to provide Corelli with 150 copies, free of charge, presumably for the composer to sell. In his will, as well as his collection of violins and manuscripts, Corelli bequeathed to Fornari his Op 6 and ‘any gift’ that may come from their publication. Fornari was impatient to take possession of the copies promised to Corelli, but was distrustful of Roger, whom he suspected of procrastination. However, Fornari’s fears were groundless as Roger had begun to forward editions to him by September 1713.

Fornari, in order to protect his income from their sale, took out a papal privilege on the concertos that prevented the importation or reissue of copies for the Roman market. This decree also prevented any opposition from the rival Bolognese publishers, who were usually first to reissue Corelli’s music. Fornari’s attempts to protect his profits did not end there, for he decided to replace Corelli’s original dedication with one of his own so that he might receive any reward due from the dedicatee. It is uncertain as to whether his aim was a success but, in 1716, the Elector responded to a petition from Corelli’s elder brother Ippolito by conferring on the family the Marquisate of Ladenburg.

Most of the concertos that constitute the Op 6 are made up of movements written at different times and for different occasions. There is evidence that Corelli had composed some as early as 1682 when the Savoyard composer, George Muffat, reported that he had heard Corelli’s concertos performed in Rome. Although it is impossible to confirm whether Muffat had heard the Op 6 on this occasion, some of the movements do possess stylistically conservative features that indicate an early date of composition. Several movements survive in an earlier form; for example, the Largo of Concerto 6 was originally written for the 1689 performance of the oratorio Santa Beatrice d’Este. There are also manuscript copies of the Corrente from Concerto 10 and the Pastorale from the ‘Christmas Concerto’ (Concerto 8), both of which predate the publication of the Op 6. Furthermore, Concertos 4 and 7, and the first movement of Concerto 2, appear to have been originally conceived for trumpet, while other movements, such as the finales of Concertos 2 and 3—the latter of which takes the form of a gigue—are stylistically similar to movements in his trio sonatas. Nevertheless, when Corelli reused old music he meticulously revised it so that it fitted seamlessly into the new work. This can be seen in several concertos, including the second which has obvious thematic links between four of the five movements.

Corelli’s concertos were written for two groups of players. The first of these, the ‘concertino’, consists of two violins and a cello, while the second group, the ‘ripieno’, is formed from two violins, viola and bass. The ripieno parts could be doubled by other performers, but the concertino parts were to be played by soloists. In many respects, the two groups reflect the origin of the word ‘concerto’ which means, in Latin, to ‘contend or dispute’. In Corelli’s concertos, the ripieno is largely used to double or reinforce the concertino, producing a chiaroscuro effect, similar to the alternation between loud and quiet already present in his sonatas. Many of the movements work well as trios and can be played by the concertino alone; this has led to an assertion that the concertos are, in essence, augmented sonatas. Nevertheless, some movements cannot be played in this manner without some loss. One such movement, the first Allegro of Concerto 2, features some delightful antiphonal writing between the concertino and ripieno sections.

Corelli’s concertos, like his sonatas, are of two types: they either take the sacred da chiesa ‘church’ form or the secular da camera ‘chamber’ form. Stylistically, the two designs are very different, as is evident from his sonatas, but with the Op 6 the two forms began to merge. In his church sonatas, Corelli made more use of polyphonic textures, while those of the chamber type are, in essence, orchestral suites. All of the first eight concertos in the Op 6 are of the church type, even though Concertos 4, 6, and 8 have no fugues; many of these concertos also contain dance movements. The last four are of the chamber type and begin with a prelude followed by a series of movements, often dances; some contain non-dance movements, such as Concerto 12 where only two of the five movements are in a dance form. It is rather ironic that the ‘Christmas Concerto’ is the least church-like of the first eight, since it contains the most dances.

The account books of Ottoboni reveal that a ‘Christmas Concerto’ was customarily performed on Christmas Eve and that, in 1690, it was Corelli who was paid for the composition of the concerto, possibly an embryonic version of Concerto 8. The eighth concerto is unlike the other eleven as Corelli gave it a title, Fatto per la notte di Natale ‘Made for this night of Christmas’. Such concertos were not unknown as a contemporary of Corelli, Giuseppe Torelli, included a Pastorale per il Natale in his Op 8 concertos from 1709. Of Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’, it is only the Pastorale that is traditionally associated with Christmas and, in order to set the pastoral scene, Corelli composed the movement in compound time. He also set out to recall the biblical shepherds who attended the birth of Christ through the use of features associated with their music, such as the sound of pipes or bagpipes. Corelli imitated the bagpipe’s drone through the use of sustained notes in the lower instruments, while the pipes of the shepherds are conveyed in the simple, lyrical melodic lines that are often heard in thirds or sixths. In the original parts, Corelli added the term ‘ad libitum’ after the movement’s title; this appears to indicate that the entire Pastorale could be omitted when this concerto was performed outside the Christmas period.

Even though most of the attention has been directed to the ‘Christmas Concerto’, all twelve concertos are highly refined and reflect Corelli’s exceptional skill at composition. Features of the others include the vigorous first Allegro of Concerto 3, which is the longest extant fugue by Corelli, while Concerto 4 concludes with a memorably tumultuous coda. Furthermore, the Allemanda of Concerto 11 has a virtuoso cello part that, with its use of bass diminution, is more like a cello concerto.

Corelli’s concertos were well received and frequently reissued throughout the 18th century. On mainland Europe they were admired, but more in a stylistic sense since composers such as Torelli, Albinoni and Vivaldi had produced newer, more energetic paradigms before the Op 6 was published. A combination of the Corellian style and Vivaldian form may be seen in many German concertos, including those by Telemann. In France, Italian music was held in high esteem and the ‘Christmas Concerto’ was a staple of the Parisian Tuileries Concerts Spirituels from their inception in 1725 until 1766. A French edition of Corelli’s concertos appeared circa 1740, but they were never as well-liked as his sonatas. However, in Britain Corelli’s Op 6 was highly successful and very influential. The first British edition appeared in 1715; they were subsequently reissued many times and remained a concert favourite throughout the 18th century. Their popularity is evident from the writings of Charles Burney who, in 1789, wrote that the ‘concertos of Corelli seem to have withstood all the attacks of timeand fashion with more firmness than any of his other works.’ Their success owed much to the freelance nature of musicians in Britain, who were expected to form concert orchestras with little notice and practically no rehearsal time. Concerti grossi were, for them, the ideal genre as the concert organisers, or other billed performers, would take on the more challenging concertino roles, leaving the orchestral players the simpler ripieno parts. Foreign composers enjoyed particular success with this genre in Britain, the most notable of whom were Francesco Geminiani and Handel.

Handel was well aware of the British populace’s predilection for Corelli’s concertos and composed his own set in 1739. Entitled the Grand Concertos, they emulated Corelli’s set but are very different stylistically; Handel paid homage to his illustrious predecessor by giving his set the same opus number. Native British composers also produced a large number of such works, the most prolific of whom was Charles Avison; he issued six collections of original concerti grossi and a further set based on the ‘Essercizi’ of Domenico Scarlatti. Other native composers of concerti grossi include John Stanley, William Babel, Robert Woodcock, Richard Mudge and Michael Festing. However, as the music written by Corelli’s imitators faded into obscurity, his concertos remained highly regarded. Performances of the ‘Christmas Concerto’, in an arrangement for organ, became popular in the second-half of the 18th century and continued to be played throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. In 1953, Michael Tippett marked the tercentenary of Corelli’s birth through the composition of his Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, the source of which was the Adagio from the second concerto.

Few people in the history of musical composition have enjoyed such a long, unbroken period of popularity as Corelli. Of his famous contemporaries, the music of both Bach and Vivaldi endured a period of neglect after their deaths; only Handel achieved the same lasting fame as Corelli, primarily through his ever fashionable oratorios. Corelli’s continual appeal is entirely due to the timeless nature of his works, particularly his set of concerti grossi which have admirably withstood the ravages of time. Many have spoken in praise of Corelli’s concertos, but perhaps the greatest tribute again comes from Burney who said that the ‘harmony is so pure, so rich, and so grateful; the parts are so clearly, judiciously, and ingeniously disposed; and the effect of the whole, from a large band, so majestic, solemn, and sublime, that they preclude all criticism, and make us forget that there is any other Music of the same kind existing.’

Simon D. I. Fleming © 2012

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