I’m always ready for surprises.
Yet I have to admit that this time I was caught somewhat off guard by what had been squeezed into the CD jewel box.
Right from the outset recorder player Maurice Steger and the ensemble I Barocchisti come at us with more musical excitement than anyone might have imagined in a collection of works by Antonio Vivaldi! You can’t say Steger doesn’t warn us. In a little essay he wrote to accompany the recording, he wants us to know that Vivaldi’s music “radiates vital energy, celebrates affective states at their most intimate, artfully mimics natural phenonema and tells stories full of blazing colours, heady fragrances, humor, imagination, exuberance, tenderness and melancholy.” Are you surprised that someone can anticipate so much from Vivaldi?
It’s a recording mostly of concertos for solo recorder and orchestra titled Concerti per flauto (Harmonia Mundi 902190). “Flauto” was the word used for the recorder in Vivaldi’s time. In French, the recorder is known as the flute à bec (literally “flute with a beak”). Indeed, when listening to the recording, you may want to take cover during the finale of the famous concerto by Vivaldi which he titled: “Il gardellino” (“The Goldfinch”). No, it’s not exactly Vivaldi meets Hitchcock, but it’s a rather aggressive musical bird compared to previous portrayals of the recorder-voiced creature by performers over the years. Then there’s the drama and mystery of the night which is enacted in the recorder concerto known as “La notte” (“Night”). Perhaps the release was appropriately timed for just before Halloween.
Maurice Steger is from northern Switzerland – from Winterthur, near Zurich. The ensemble I Barocchisti is from the southern Swiss city of Lugano. This is the first recording by I Barocchisti to enter the Friends of WILL Library, even though the group has been around for a number of years. This introduction to the ensemble is a welcome surprise. So is the discovery that it’s not exactly the first time that some members of the ensemble have been a part of our library. For years, we have enjoyed a recorded performance featuring Duilio Galfetti in a mandolin concerto by Vivaldi with the Milan-based ensemble Il giardino armonico. We’ve also heard him featured with Diego Fasolis in works that Beethoven and his contemporaries wrote for mandolin and fortepiano (an early version of the modern piano). As it turns out, Galfetti is a violinist as well as mandolinist. He’s the concertmaster of I Barocchisti. Diego Fasolis is the director of the ensemble and an organist too. I did a little searching and discovered that Steger and I Barocchisti recorded music of Vivaldi years ago. So it’s a Swiss reunion of sorts.
Antonio Vivaldi served for a number of years as a teacher, composer and orchestra director at the Ospedale della Pietà, one of several schools for girls in Venice that specialized in music. Steger suggests that even as Vivaldi wrote concertos for the girls, it may well have been for a wind player named Ignazio Si[e]ber that he wrote some of his most technically demanding works. They were intended for the sopranino recorder, which is the highest pitched recorder. Steger says that those works set a new standard for Baroque recorder playing and are among the most daring things ever written for the instrument. According to Steger, Si[e]ber served as both a teacher of oboe and flute at the Pietà and “may have been the only person technically equipped to perform the concertos with the required virtuosity.” The concerto titled ‘La pastorella” (“The Shepherd Girl”) is included among those concertos as well as a few which do not have descriptive titles. Diego Fasolis surprises us in “La pastorella” by using a hurdy gurdy – a most interesting folk instrument with bass and melody strings played not with a bow, but with a wheel set in motion by turning a crank. It’s used as a bass instrument in the concerto and adds to the rustic character of the work. The effect is subtle, but charming.
The recording includes one of the concertos Vivaldi wrote for pairs of instruments – which sometimes are referred to as Vivaldi’s “Noah’s Ark” concertos. It’s a work for 2 recorders, 2 oboes, 2 violins, bassoon, strings and continuous bass. Some of those concertos were written by Vivaldi for performances at the Ospedale della Pietà. It has been said that the girls for whom he wrote hundreds of concertos all wanted to have solo parts. At times Vivaldi provided that opportunity with concertos that enable more than one player to enjoy the spotlight.
Yet another surprise on the disc is an arrangement of a violin concerto by Vivaldi which was recorded for the very first time only a dozen or so years ago by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. The concerto has become something of an audience favorite here. I’ve had a number of inquiries about it. The performance featuring Maurice Steiger is a reminder of how difficult it can be for a recorder player to tackle a virtuostic work written for the violin. Steger takes on the challenge, as if to say: “touché!”
It should have come as no surprise that generous listeners enabled us not only to reach but exceed our fall fundraising goal last week. A special thanks to all who contributed during the drive, as well as to those who have been supporting Illinois Public Media all along! Be sure to tune in often to hear what your support sounds like. Join me for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9-noon, with the Classic Morning Prelude just before on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.