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Virtuosity without swank


PETER DALE explores the Italian baroque

La Castella. Copyright (c) 1998 Claves RecordsThis is a delightful concert of music, all of it Italian (Steger has made an English Collection too, also from Claves Records) and spanning the hundred years or so from 1650. Not all of the composers would be familiar except to specialist listeners (friends of the recorder, as well as of the Italian Baroque) but Corelli, Marcello and Vivaldi are among the company so we are travelling on the highways as well as down the byways.

These latter are probably the more interesting in fact, and certainly no less musical. There's a Sonata in A Minor by Francesco Mancini which is quite new to me but really good - by turns brilliant and reflective, but always very intelligent and engaging in the variety of his textures. [Listen - track 5, 01:20-02:20] Even more enjoyable is a sonata - La Bernabea - by one Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli. All we seem to know about the fellow is that he was at work 1660 and 1669. Above his rather pedestrian bass lines he spins, tumbles, dances and sings an astonishing variety of very musical moods. [Listen - track 7, 00:00-01:06] Except that they lack words, every other nuance of speech seems to be there. The whole piece is very impressive.

The Corelli Sonata is familiar as the tenth Violin Sonata of the Opus 5 set, but played here in a contemporary transcription for recorder. If you didn't know the original you'd never guess that this wasn't it - so idiomatic does it sound. [Listen - track 8, 01:10-02:10] But you might begin to wonder how idiomatic, in that case, is his writing for the violin. The solution to the problem is that Corelli's Concerti Grossi are central to the string repertoire but not so much the sonatas. They are central to the development of the sonata in the abstract, but less of string sonatas in particular. In addition to these we are treated to sonatas by Dario Castello and Marco Uccellini (and, of course, Marcello and Vivaldi).

Maurice Steger is a young Swiss musician. He plays Dutch, Swiss and Australian instruments after English, and Italian models, and he plays them extremely well. This is the flauto dolce indeed but never with that gawping vibrato that too many flautists, having seen the error of their ways and taken up the recorder, are apt to regale us with. Steger makes it sing alright but he leaves the throbbing out. The articulation - some of it extremely agile - is effortlessly accomplished. [Listen - track 18, 04:10-05:02] Or rather you can hear the gasping for breath sometimes (these sound engineers are on the side of humans, as well as being masters of their machines) but no sense of strain. The listener's turn to gasp comes with Steger's cadenzas. They are models of virtuosity without swank.

A very accomplished group of musicians are always there with Steger. They are La Castella of the disc's title: harpsichord, chamber organ, theorbo and cello. Steger's recorder is always to the fore and this seems a little unfair because all these are really trio sonatas (ie. for four voices) and all the players are very good, but the recorder, despite all the efforts of Dolmetsch, Bruggen, Petri et al still needs to be exposed for a lot of people to recognise what a beautiful and varied palette of sound it can achieve when it is played very, very well, so I won't complain for long. With people like Steger and La Castella (and our own Palladian Ensemble) playing so very, very well, both the recorder and this still rather specialised repertoire are going to gain the place in our affection and admiration that they so richly both deserve.


Copyright © 5 March 2000 Peter Dale, Danbury, Essex, UK







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