Complete Sonatas for 2 Violins and B.C.

Vivaldi: Complete Sonatas for 2 Violins and B.C.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Complete Sonatas for 2 Violins and B.C.
rec. 2020/21, Casa del Principe, San Sebastiano Curone, Italy
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
Brilliant Classics 96188 [3CDs: 194]

In 1681 Arcangelo Corelli published his first collection of trio sonatas which were to be followed by three further sets of twelve sonatas each. These came from the press in 1685, 1689 and 1694 respectively. They were enthusiastically embraced by the music lovers and amateur performers at the time. It is telling that the Venetian music printer Giuseppe Sala reprinted all of these collections some years after their first appearance. The influence of Corelli’s sonatas was such that almost any composer of later generations felt obliged to show his skills in trio sonatas of his own. A set of trio sonatas was often a composer’s first publication of music from his pen. Examples are the trio sonatas by Albinoni, Bonporti and Caldara.

Vivaldi was another who decided that he should show the music world what he was capable of by publishing a collection of trio sonatas. It was the above-mentioned music printer Sala who published Vivaldi’s twelve trio sonatas Op. 1 in 1705. This edition has only partly survived; today’s performers rely on a reprint by Estienne Roger of Amsterdam which dates from around 1715. However, it is assumed that the 1705 edition was in fact a reprint as well. Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot argues that the title page doesn’t mention the fact that the composer was teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà whereas Vivaldi otherwise didn’t miss any opportunity to tell that he was somebody in the music scene. Therefore the first edition could have been from 1703 and may have been published shortly before Vivaldi had been appointed in his post at the Ospedale in September of that year.

Corelli’s trio sonatas can be divided into two genres: the sonata da chiesa, comprising four movements with tempo indications as adagio, andante and allegro, and the sonata da camera which opened with a preludio and continued with three dances. Most composers started with a set of sonate da chiesa, probably because these were dominated by counterpoint – the second movement was always a fugue – and allowed them to show their skills in this department. In the early decades of the 18th century the mastery of counterpoint was still a bench-mark for any up-and-coming composer. It is probably Vivaldi’s wilfulness which made him decide to start with a set of sonate da camera. They usually consist of four movements. The exceptions are the Sonata I in g minor and the Sonata IV in E which have five and the Sonata X in B flat which has three.

Scholars have noted that Vivaldi’s trio sonatas show some immaturity. That could be the reason that in our time they are not that often performed and recorded. It seems that in Vivaldi’s time they didn’t find a wide dissemination. It has also been suggested that the composer himself didn’t rate them very highly as he hardly ever borrowed from them. Maybe he even didn’t like the very form of the trio sonata as after 1710 he seldom returned to it.

Not all of Vivaldi’s compositions can be dated. That makes it difficult to be sure how often Vivaldi turned to the form of the trio sonata again. In 1716 Le Cène in Amsterdam published a set of six sonatas as the Op. 5. It included four sonatas for violin and basso continuo and two trio sonatas. However, the date of publication doesn’t imply that they were written after the Op. 1. It is quite possible that they were a carry-over, and Vivaldi wanted to publish them because trio sonatas remained very popular among amateurs. The trio sonatas RV 72 and 76 are again of the da camera type; both comprise three movements in the order slow-fast-fast.

This set also includes four sonatas that have been recorded before as ‘sonatas without bass’. That is to say: the basso continuo – in fact a basso seguente, as the bass only follows the lowest notes of one of the solo parts – is optional, which means that these sonatas can be played as violin duets. Such pieces were rather rare at the time. It is only later in the 18th century that duets became quite popular; they may often have been intended to be played by a teacher and his pupil, which gives them the character of pedagogical material. Michael Talbot has suggested they could have been written for performances by Vivaldi and his father on their central European tour of 1729-30. “The absence of a bass part would have made them very suitable for impromptu performance in conditions where no cello or harpsichord was to hand”. Another possibility is that they were ordered from him.

These four sonatas are all in three movements, following the model of Vivaldi’s own concertos. Although Vivaldi called them sonate da camera they omit any dance movements. There are some similarities between them and the double concertos for two violins, and that goes especially for the Sonata in G (RV 71) whose slow movement is almost identical with the slow movement from the Concerto in G (RV 516). The Sonata in C (RV 60) is in five movements, but may be not from Vivaldi’s pen.

There are not that many recordings of Vivaldi’s trio sonatas to choose from. The main asset of this production is that one gets Vivaldi’s whole output in the trio sonata genre. The playing as such is alright, but I find these performances too straightforward. Vivaldi’s instrumental music is more theatrical than they suggest. I would have liked stronger contrasts in dynamics and tempo, and a more differentiated treatment of the latter. For the sonatas Op. 1 my first choice is L’Estravagante (Naïve, 2012) (although unfortunately it includes only ten sonatas) and for the remaining sonatas I prefer several recordings by Baltic Baroque (Estonian Record Productions). Even so, Vivaldi lovers may well enjoy these performances, and Vivaldi never lets one down.

Johan van Veen