Recording of January 2001: Geminiani: Concerti Grossi

Geminiani: Concerti Grossi
Concerto 1 in D, Concerto 2 in B-flat, Concerto 3 in C, Concerto 4 in F, eight others.
Andrew Manze, Academy of Ancient Music; Alison McGillivray, cello; Richard Egarr, harpsichord.
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907261.62 (2 CDs). 2000. Robina G. Young, prod.; Geoff Miles, Mike Clements, engs. AAD? TT: 2:24:19
Performance ****?
Sonics ****?

In 1716 in London, violinist Francesco Geminiani, just off the boat from his home in Italy, was called to play before King George I. Worried that an unknown and somewhat less-than-stellar harpsichord accompanist would sabotage this crucial performance, the virtuoso requested that George Frideric Handel be his partner. Needless to say, the resulting performance was a success—so much so, in fact, that the violinist dedicated his next published collection, six concerti grossi based on the Op.5 solo sonatas of his old teacher Archangelo Corelli, to the King. When the first volume was a success, Geminiani orchestrated the remaining six sonatas to complete the body of music contained in this splendid recording.

Corelli, of course, was the enormously influential Italian soloist, composer, and (perhaps most important) teacher whose students included not only Geminiani, but also Francesco Maria Veracini. As a composer, Corelli helped define the three dominant genres of his age: the solo and trio sonatas and the concerto grosso. Though Corelli's work was more staid and balanced than Vivaldi's, it has a charm and grace that Geminiani managed to recapture in his orchestrations, and which modern violin virtuoso Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music reproduce with sparkle and joy.

In a bit of serendipity, the first six of these concertos were initially published in 1726, the year the Academy of Ancient Music was founded. Originally formed by the famously cantankerous music historian John Hawkins to play "works of the masters," the group—not surprisingly, considering its stated purpose and what friend Samuel Johnson called Hawkins' "mean" personality—became embroiled in intellectual struggles from within and without. Whether or not to mix secular and sacred music, for example, was a particular sore point. After three quarters of a century of turmoil and rescuing fine music, the Academy finally slipped under the waves of history at the turn of the 19th century.

Revived in 1973 by Christopher Hogwood, the Academy of Ancient Music is now so active that it sports three conductors: Hogwood and associate conductors Manze and oboist Paul Goodwin. To celebrate the synergy between the Geminiani concerti grossi and the Academy, this two-disc package includes a facsimile of a 1770 pamphlet published by Hawkins that attempted to lay out both the history and manifesto of his group.

Speaking of manifestos, in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Manze was quoted as saying that his theory of playing baroque music today depends on 70% imagination. He also observed that, originally, personalities were as important to this music as what was written on the page. "If we had been privileged to hear Vivaldi or Corelli, we would have been bowled over in the way people were bowled over by Presley."

In both points, Manze hits on the essence of why he is one of the most gifted performers of baroque music to come along in years. His playing has a vitality and inventiveness that frees the music from the kind of leaden, by-the-letter authenticism that abhors the kind of experimentation and flux in performance that he refers to.

On record, Manze is necessarily more disciplined yet no less thrilling. In Concerto 4, to choose one of many exemplary moments in this exquisite set, he, cellist David Watkin, and the rest of the Academy capture the pathos of the opening movement as well as they do the sprightly bounce of the short second movement. This firm grasp of the trademark dynamic of the concerto grosso—contrasting movements of solemnity and playfulness—combined with Manze and the Academy's beautiful playing, are what give this disc its admirable and accessible expressiveness.

The second group of concertos includes Geminiani's surprisingly effective orchestration of Corelli's solo-violin showstopper, Follia, and benefits from the additions of cellist Alison McGillivray and harpsichordist Richard Egarr to the concertino section. Throughout, the textures of Geminiani's canny orchestrations, in which the original solo lines of bass and violin are interwoven among the new orchestral parts, are given full reign to blossom into wondrous if lightweight frolics. These discs are beautifully recorded—the concertino and the larger concerto grosso sections are gorgeously matched and blended, and Manze's violin is never less than warm and alive.

While he may not be quite the force of nature that Corelli, Geminiani, or even John Hawkins was in life, Andrew Manze's intelligent blend of modern taste and the life-giving unpredictability of baroque music has given this brightly colored music new vigor, and never more than in his traversal of these delightful concertos of this Italian original.—Robert Baird