The passage of time can be rough on a composer. Consider Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751), whose name is most often associated with a moving Adagio that he did not write. (It’s by 20th-century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, possibly working from a fragment by the composer.) But the real Albinoni did write some beautiful music that deserves to be known, as a few recent recordings remind us. There are even some movements marked “Adagio.”
Not a lot is known about Albinoni – ironically, much of what we do know is thanks to the biography by that successful faker, Giazotto – except that he was born, raised, and educated in Venice, came from a wealthy family, and had patrons commissioning his operas and instrumental works all over Italy. His music, in the late-Baroque style verging on pre-classicism, has a serene sound with a solid architectural foundation. It’s no wonder that computer-generated MIDI recordings of his works keep showing up on Spotify, presented as if they’re on real instruments. Listener beware! Happily, there are also some actual instrumentalists that still play his music.
Albinoni was not particularly an innovator, but his skills were finely honed and he had a good understanding of the fashionable music his patrons wanted. Trio sonatas were all the rage in the mid-18th century, so of course Albinoni wrote some of those. One exciting thing about a composer who has been reduced to a single, spurious Adagio is that the field is wide open for ambitious musicians. For example, until 2022, no one had ever made a period-instrument recording of Albinoni’s 12 Sonate a tre (Trio Sonatas), Op. 3.
L’armonica della Cetra, under the direction of violinist Matteo Saccà, has filled that gap in a two-disc release from Da Vinci Classics. Like most late-Baroque trio sonatas, Albinoni’s require more than three players. Two violinists carry the melodic lines, and the basso continuo section – considered the third voice – consist of up to three instruments: cello, theorbo (an extremely long bass lute with sympathetic strings), and either harpsichord or portative (small, wooden) organ.
The Op. 3 sonatas, Albinoni’s second collection in this genre, were published in 1701, when the composer was 30. They blend elements of the two main types of trio sonata: chamber sonata (for secular use) and church sonata (for use during worship services). Albinoni designated most of the movements with the names of courtly dance types as one would find in a chamber sonata, such as allemanda, corrente, sarabanda, and giga. Yet he also adds Italian tempo markings, typical of the church trios. The presence of organ is also more common in church than chamber sonatas.
The organ is used in the opening movement of Sonata No. 7, marked Preludio, Largo. Saccà and fellow violinist Rossella Pugliano pull at their suspended and resolved dissonances with great emotional effect, decorating their long notes with delicate flourishes.
While late-Baroque dance suites were not usually meant to be danced to – listeners just enjoyed the rhythms and structures of the familiar types of tunes – it is widely believed in the historical-performance scene that they should be played as if they could accompany dancers. In other words, the rhythm needs to be consistent and not waylaid by too many expressive liberties. L’armonic della Cetra acknowledges this essential guidance, making it hard not to click your heels smartly and curtsy/bow during the Corrente movement in Sonata No. 5. Engineer Giuseppe Famularo also deserves credit for sculpting compellingly three-dimensional sound.
Another recent Albinoni recording focuses on sonatas for a single violin plus continuo. Albinoni: Late Violin Sonatas, released by Brilliant Classics, features violinist Federico Guglielmo as leader of the ensemble L’Arte dell’Arco (The Art of the Bow). Of the composer’s three published sets of violin sonatas, Op. 6 is the best known and most recorded. For that reason, Guglielmo did not include it in this two-disc set, focusing instead on the two little-known sets from later in Albinoni’s life.
Most are church sonatas, in the “post-Corellian style,” as Guglielmo puts it, each with two pairs of fast-slow movements with Italian tempo markings. (The three-movement violin sonata, like those of Mozart, was not yet in vogue.) The most striking thing about these recordings is Guglielmo’s intense sound, reminiscent of Andrew Manze when he used to do a lot of early-Baroque music with his trio Romanesca. It’s unusual to hear that timbre applied to late-Baroque music, but it is riveting. The shaking, shimmering effects on the harpsichord by Roberto Loreggian help give this rendition an earlier-period sound.
Besides celebrating the new endeavors on behalf of Albinoni, it’s always good to be reminded of classic albums. Originally released over 50 years ago, I Solisti Veneti’s recording on Erato of Albinoni’s Six Oboe Concertos, Op. 9, is newly available on streaming platforms. This outstanding Baroque string orchestra, conducted by Claudio Scimone, hosts oboist Pierre Pierlot in a fine performance of these pieces.
These are Baroque concerto grossos, not solo concertos in the genre’s definition starting in the Classical period. In the opening Allegro of Op. 9, No. 3, in F major, you will hear two oboes (Jacques Chambon joins Pierlot) working in close coordination, a style favored at the time. The role of the orchestra (in this case, strings and continuo) is to provide a textural contrast to the soloists, responding to them.
Of course, Albinoni was perfectly capable of writing his own Adagio movements. In these concertos, they tend toward simple arpeggios in the orchestra supporting long, heartfelt melodic lines for the soloist(s), as you can hear in the second movement of Op. 9, No. 2. (The concerto overall is in G minor, but – as was typical through the early 19th century – the slow movement is in the relative major key, B flat.)
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hearing the “Albinoni” Adagio once in a while. But it’s also good to have more actual Albinoni to listen to. He deserves that much respect.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.