Pietro Locatelli: Rediscovering a Master of Violin Music

Pietro Locatelli: Rediscovering a Master of Violin Music

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Pietro Locatelli (1695 – 1764) is one of those gifted Baroque composers who somehow didn’t remain a well-known name through the centuries. He may not be a hidden Bach or Handel (or even Corelli), but some recent recordings demonstrate that his music deserves the notice it’s been getting.

Born and raised in the Italian Alpine town of Bergamo, Locatelli was trained on the violin in that city’s rich cathedral culture. As a teen he made his way to Rome to continue his studies, probably including a short stint with Corelli himself. Locatelli soon found work, playing in churches and in the households of a prince and a cardinal. He did a lot of traveling in the 1720s to Mantua, Venice, Munich, and Berlin, and earned a name for himself as both a performer and a composer. After that successful decade, he spent the last 35 years of his life in Amsterdam, out of the limelight, supporting himself as a music editor and violin teacher.

However, he continued to publish his own music while in Amsterdam, even if he wrote less of it. One example is the Sei concerti a quattro opera VII (Six Concertos for Four, Op. 7), published in 1741. Ensemble Barocco Carlo Antonio Marino has recorded these on the Tactus label, under the direction of Natale Arnoldi. The “Four” in the title is not literally four musicians, or even four instruments, but rather four instrumental sections: first and second violins, violas, and basso continuo (cello, bass, and harpsichord). For this recording, the total is 11 musicians, so still an intimate group.

Arnoldi’s tempos are sometimes baffling. This moderately paced final movement of Concerto No. 1 is marked “vivace,” which one would expect to be much faster.

These Op. 7 concertos show the then middle-aged composer exhibiting a surprising sensitivity to then-recent changes in musical tastes. More pre-classical than Baroque in certain ways, the pieces have the kind of relationship between violin soloist and orchestra that is associated with the middle of the 18th century. There aren’t the predictable “tutti” vs. “soli” sections where the orchestra trades off with the soloist; instead, Locatelli provides a balance and lets the soloist interact with the other voices in a more sophisticated way. The use of chords under a melody – as opposed to counterpoint of multiple voices – is another indicator of the new style.

While the Andante first movement of Concerto No. 4 is a good example of the galant style, Arnoldi simply does not have control of his players. Pre-classical music is defined by its elegance, a trait missing here.

There is far more to admire on Il labarinto armónico – Three Violin Concertos, a Bis label recording by violinist and conductor Ilya Gringolts and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra. The three concertos are taken from Locatelli’s Op. 3 set of 12 pieces, published as L’Arte del violino. An interesting essay by Marianne Rônez in the CD booklet explains that these works demonstrate his own virtuosity and demand it of others – in both hands. The left hand gets a workout through “extensions, octaves, unprepared tenths, double stops, arpeggios, simultaneous trills and melody – a sort of ‘devil’s trill’ anticipating Tartini – and playing in extremely high positions.” The bowing arm is put through the paces of “arpeggio, staccato, and fast détaché.”

Indeed, Locatelli is considered a kind of forerunner of Nicolò Paganini (1782 – 1840), who pushed violin playing and composing for that instrument into a dizzying new stratosphere. The comparison makes sense when you consider that each of the Op. 3 concertos contains two movements labeled “Capriccio,” a wild, virtuosic genre that Paganini would become known for. In the first Capriccio of Locatelli’s Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12, Gringolts is up for the challenge.

This music also has commonalities with an earlier violin repertoire, the “Stylus phantasticus” of early 17th-century Germany and Italy. As with that style, Locatelli allows the violinist great expressive freedom, building in an ad libitum section to each capriccio movement. Even in the Largo introduction to the second movement of Op. 3, No. 12, the violin is like an exotic butterfly, flitting about, landing, exploring, flashing its wings.

The Finnish Baroque Orchestra by turns supports Gringolts and stays out of his way, always with clarity of purpose and a graceful tone.

Gringolts has not been the only one admiring Locatelli’s capriccios lately. On Luca Fanfoni’s Dynamic Records release, 24 Capricci Plus One, the violinist extracts only the capriccio movements from the Op. 3 Concertos, adding in another, nicknamed “Prova dell’intonazione” (Test of Intonation) from Op. 6, No. 12.

Here the comparison to Paganini is unmistakable. In fact, Fanfoni asked Paganini biographer Danilo Prefumo to write the booklet essay. While Prefumo acknowledges Paganini’s debt to the previous generation of innovative violinists (Ignaz Pleyel, G.B. Viotti), there is no proof that the famed virtuoso studied Locatelli. However, says Prefumo, “the affinities between Locatelli’s and Paganini’s capricci are such that they do not seem simple coincidence.”

By all accounts, Paganini’s playing possessed a wildness that frightened people. He was banned from appearing in some towns because he was believed bewitched by the devil. That wildness is the real connection between Paganini and this recording. Fanfoni pulls rhythm, intonation, and articulation to the edges, and the result sounds like a midnight marriage of late Baroque and whiskey-fueled bluegrass music. The effect is intensified because Fanfoni dispenses with the other instruments, playing the violin line a cappella.

It does seem to be Locatelli’s time to shine. Yet another recording of his music came out recently on Théotime Langlois de Swarte’s Vivaldi, Locatelli, Leclair Violin Concertos on Harmonia Mundi. The French violinist is joined by the ensemble Les Ombres, conducted by bass violist Margaux Blanchard. Besides Locatelli’s Concerto Op. 3, No. 8, the program includes two concertos each by Antonio Vivaldi and an earlier Baroque violin master, Jean-Marie Leclair (1697 – 1764).

There is delicacy in Langlois de Swarte’s touch. The butterfly analogy comes to mind again, yet he is careful not to be melodramatic. Les Ombres back up that approach with reserved beauty. Langlois de Swarte is also constantly aware of “implied polyphony,” the way Locatelli (just like Bach) has the violinist play one note at a time, yet switching from string to string so quickly that it gives the illusion of multiple notes at once.

In the past, Langlois de Swarte has collaborated on projects with dancers. For the Locatelli, he chose a different art to enhance the music. The video he made for the Capriccio from the Op. 3, No. 8 concerto features a painter, Silvère Jarrosson.

It’s tempting to think of music history as a series of shining stars – Bach, Beethoven, Paganini –  who appeared out of nowhere once in a while and changed the shape of music. But the attention being paid to Locatelli is a good reminder that there is a constant river of innovative artists influencing future generations, even if their names are (temporarily) forgotten.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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