Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) had a pretty sweet deal. As a violinist and composer, it seems he was beloved by everyone in Rome with the money and power to help him, a couple of cardinals in particular. He ended up with his own orchestra of about thirty string players, something very rare in the Baroque period. As a result of this situation, Corelli is the only important Baroque composer to have written nothing but instrumental music.
But he earned that special consideration. Everything he set his hand to in music, he altered forever, from the technique of playing the violin to the structure of the concerto and sonata genres. And his music is gloriously complex, almost single-handedly bringing about the start of the High Baroque period. Without Corelli, there would have been no Bach. It’s no wonder his music is still performed and recorded frequently.
There’s been a focus lately on Corelli’s works for violin, including a fascinating experimental recording by Baroque violinist Susanne Scholz and harpsichordist Michael Hell. For their album L’immagine di Corelli, on Querstand Records, they prepared with intense historical research, including edited scores and treatises by some of Corelli’s violin students (the most famous is Francesco Geminiani). Scholz recorded using an array of violin bows to see how it affected ornamentation, and Hell used four different harpsichords.
The album includes six of the 12 Opus 5 Sonatas for violin and continuo. The playing is detailed and thoughtful, yet unabashedly emotional – an unusual combination, especially for performance based on such committed academic rigor. As you can hear in the opening Adagio of the sonata Op. 5, No. 3, in C major, the expressiveness is blatant. As for the ornamentation, Scholz’s florid passages are as clear as they are quick, and Hell decorates in waves like wind through a wheat field. This performance can’t help but stir poetic imagery in your mind.
The second-movement Giga of the Sonata No. 9 in A Major proves a playful romp, with Scholz practically winking and grinning as she makes us wait the tiniest moment for each phrase to get rolling. Notice also how she carefully avoids exact, metronomic rhythms; that slight swing and unpredictability is a performance-practice element called notes inégales (unequal notes), and when done correct it breathes life into courtly music that otherwise sounds stuffy.
Another lively and original approach to Corelli’s string writing can be found in the album Marais Meets Corelli (PAN Classics), featuring viola da gambist Jakob Rattinger and violinist Lina Tur Bonet, with Nadja Lesaulnier on harpsichord. “Marais” refers to Marin Marais (1656-1728), who worked with Lully at the royal court in France and specialized in the viola da gamba.
The album is evenly divided between works by the two composers. To represent Corelli, they chose some of the Opus 5 Violin Sonatas. Here’s the Vivace from the Fifth Sonata in G minor. Compared to the Scholz/Hell recording, there’s more of a sense of abandon. You can again hear the sought-after unevenness and micro-pauses that define a good period performance. With the gamba doubling the bassline (a normal but not required feature of the time), the sound is much fuller. On the other hand, the ornaments aren’t as detailed.
Rattinger, Bonet, and Lesaulnier have gained attention among early-music fans for their YouTube folia throwdowns. A folia is a simple bassline/harmonic pattern that was commonly used as the foundation for both composition and improvisation in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This album includes a set of folia variations “after Marais and Corelli.” The over-the-top flourishes by these three first-tier Baroque specialists are as wild and intricate as the improv in any jazz session.
It’s easy to forget that, in Corelli’s day, instrumentation wasn’t fixed the way it has been since the late 18th century. Any instrument that could play what was written was welcome to do so. Hence we get an album called Solos and Concertos Fitted for the Flutes, on the Arcana label. Among the works offered here are solo recorder versions of the now-familiar Opus 5 Sonatas, usually played on violin.
Soloist Marco Scorticati is joined by harpsichordist Davide Pozzi for the sonatas. Here’s the Sarabande from Op. 5, No. 7 in G minor. While Scorticati’s sound is gentle and pure, his instrument simply doesn’t have the expressive capacity of a violin. For me, the real treat is the thoughtful keyboard playing of Pozzi, who takes a more contrapuntal than chord-based approach to his part (which Corelli wrote partly in the shorthand known as figured bass, and is therefore open to interpretation).
For the modern listener, Corelli is probably best known for his concerti grossi, a genre he helped to invent. Really, a concerto grosso is just a trio sonata with extra instruments: a bunch of short movements in contrasting tempos and styles. Scorticati is the director of the ensemble Estro Cromatico, which plays three of the 12 concerti grossi that Corelli included in his Opus 6. By definition, a concerto grosso includes an ensemble plus a “concertino,” meaning two or three soloists given special parts not shared by the string orchestra. In this recording, of course, they’re recorder players (Scorticati plus Sara Campobasso).
Here’s the opening Adagio-Allegro of Op. 6., No. 4, in F major. The virtuosity of the soloists is both impressive and charming, and the ensemble gives unobtrusive support, but there’s a stasis – a lack of motion – that bogs down the musical phrases. Note the very active gamba part (here played on cello by Michela Gardini); one of Corelli’s important innovations is the use of a moving bassline that participates in the counterpoint rather than just supporting chords.
A more satisfying interpretation of Corelli concerti grossi can be found on a recent release by the Freiburger Barockorchester, led by violinist Gottfried von der Goltz. The album, on the Aparte label, includes Op. 6, Nos. 1-5 and 7, plus a sinfonia without opus number that Corelli dedicated to “Santa Beatrice d’Este.”
The first Opus 6 concerto, in D major, opens with a Largo-Allegro. It was common for the first fast movement of a Baroque sonata or concerto to have a short slow intro. In the Largo’s unaccompanied violin duet, von der Goltz and Petro Müllejans delight with their aerial gymnastics. But at the 0:58 mark, the texture changes completely as the orchestra enters.
Freiburger Barockorchester takes pride in its “expanded continuo” section, meaning it includes instruments of a wide range of timbres to provide the bassline and underlying harmony: lute, harp, harpsichord, and organ, plus cello. That combination provides a richness that counterbalances the violin soloists and deepens the sound in a breathtaking way. For Corelli’s sake, I hope his own orchestra in Rome sounded this good.