Antonio Vivaldi: Concertos for Recorder

Media Review / Listening Diary 2015-06-21


2015-06-21 — Original posting
2016-08-04 — Brushed up for better readability

Recorder Concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741):

[#1] Maurice Steger — Vivaldi: Concerti per Flauto (2014)

Vivaldi: Concerti per flauto (2014) — Steger, Fasolis; CD coverVivaldi: Concerti per flauto RV 90, 95, 103, 375, 439, 443, 566

Maurice Steger, Céline Pasche
Diego Fasolis, I Barocchisti

harmonia mundi France, HMC 902190 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2014
Booklet: 28 pp. fr/en/de
Vivaldi: Concerti per flauto (2014) — Steger, Fasolis; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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[#2] Maurice Steger — Vivaldi Concerti (2000)

Vivaldi: Concerti — Steger, Fasolis; CD, EAN-13 barcodeVivaldi: Concerti RV 108, 127, 155, 428, 437, 438, 442

Maurice Steger
Diego Fasolis, I Barocchisti

claves CD 50-2010 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2000
Booklet: 48 pp. en/de/it/fr
Vivaldi: Concerti — Steger, Fasolis; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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[#3] Conrad Steinmann — Vivaldi: 4 Concertos for Recorder and Strings (1978)

Vivaldi: 4 Concertos for Recorder & Strings — Steinmann, Müller-Brühl; CD coverVivaldi: Concerti RV 439, 441, 444, 445

Conrad Steinmann
Helmut Müller-Brühl, Cappella Clementina

claves CLF 0804-9 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1978 / © 1995
Booklet: 12 pp. en/de/fr
Vivaldi: 4 Concertos for Recorder & Strings — Steinmann, Müller-Brühl; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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[#4] Giuliano Carmignola — Vivaldi: Concerti della Natura (1999)

Vivaldi: Concerti della Natura — Carmignola; CD coverVivaldi: “Concerti della Natura” — Concerti RV 90, 95, 104, 151, 253, 362, 335a

Giuliano Carmignola
Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca

Erato 8573-80225-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2000
Booklet: 32 pp. en/de/fr
Vivaldi: Concerti della Natura — Carmignola; CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerIntroduction

This blog post originated from the purchase of Maurice Steger‘s latest CD (#1 above, recorded 2014), on the occasion of a concert in Zurich, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO, Zürcher Kammerorchester). I have discussed this in an earlier post. There, I have already mentioned the above CD, which was introduced on the occasion of that concert. I pointed out that the CD was not recorded with the orchestra that I heard in the concert. Still, my description of Maurice Steger’s playing largely holds true for the CD (#1 above) as well. So in this posting I will focus on the music (at least for the pieces on that CD) and on comparisons with older/other recordings.

I have included an earlier CD (#2 above) by the same artist, also recorded (2000) with I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis, plus an older CD (recorded in 1978), with Conrad Steinmann pand the Cappella Clementina under Helmut Müller-Brühl. Finally, I’m adding a fourth CD (recorded 1999) with Giuliano Carmignola and the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, featuring some of the recorder concerti in a version for violin. These recordings include a fair number of concerti, I will not discuss all this music by CD release, but by the concerto’s Ryom catalog (Ryom-Verzeichnis, RV) number (the IMSLP site has a comprehensive list of Vivaldi’s works with the associated RV numbers):

Concerto in D major, “Il Gardellino”, RV 90

Movements: Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 4’14” + 3’09” + 3’00” = 10’21” (Steger, CD #1) — 4’10” + 2’54” + 3’26” = 10’30” (Carmignola, CD #4) — 3’40 + 2’53” + 2’27” = 8’58” (Steger / RV 428, CD #2)

This is one of Vivaldi’s most well-known concerti, known under the name “Il Gardellino”. It is closely related to the concerto in D major, RV 428, known under the same surname (see below). The composer offered two alternative instrumentations: 3 violins & cello, or flute, oboe, violin & bassoon. Both are present on the above CDs:

  • CD#1, Maurice Steger plays the version with recorder (treble recorder in g, i.e., a high alto recorder), while
  • CD#4, Giuliano Carmignola and I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca play the violin / strings-only version, and
  • CD#2, Maurice Steger plays the version for Flautino (soprano recorder in d’, a “sixth flute”), RV 428 — very similar and closely related, though slightly different in character and sound, due to the high-pitch solo instrument.

Comparison

All three recordings are excellent, really: intuitively, I’d rather associate a recorder with a gardellino (i.e., a goldfinch), or a bird in general, than a violin. It just seems a more natural fit, and I think the recorder in this concerto is more colorful, more lively, despite all of Bruno Carmignola’s art on the violin.

Among the two recorder versions, it is hard to choose: RV 428 is the more familiar version, I believe (as Vivaldi’s op.10 in general has been recorded many times. In the basement I also have an old recording of op.10 on LP, with I Musici di Roma accompanying Severino Gazzelloni on the modern Böhm/transverse flute, recorded in 1968) — but in a direct comparison I now prefer the most recent recording with Maurice Steger playing RV 90. This preference is partly also because the sound of the treble recorder in G is less aggressive than that of the sixth flute on CD #2.

Concerto in D major, “La Pastorella”, RV 95

Movements: Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 3’23” + 3’25” + 2’43” = 9’29” (Steger, CD #1) — 3’42” + 3’16” + 2’50” = 9’45” (Carmignola, CD #4)

Similar to RV 90, Vivaldi is offering two different instrumentations for this very nice concerto:

  • on CD #1, Maurice Steger plays the version for recorder (treble recorder in g, i.e., a high alto recorder), Oboe, Bassoon and continuo, while
  • on CD #4, Giuliano Carmignola and I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca play the version for violin, strings and continuo.

Also, here, Giuliano Carmignola’s version is really good (enthralling, nicely ornamented, etc.), but the recorder version (also very nicely played, of course) is more colorful. On top of that, Maurice Stager had the nice idea of adding a hurdy-gurdy over most of the concerto (he also did that in the concert in Zurich last year): an excellent fit for this particular music, and equally fitting the theme / surname “La Pastorella” (the shepherdess), the hurdy-gurdy having been a popular folk / peasant’s instrument at the time — simply lovely!

Concerto for Recorder, Oboe, Bassoon and Continuo in G minor, RV 103

Movements: Allegro ma cantabile — Largo — Allegro non molto
Duration: 4’15” + 3’45” + 1’49” = 9’47” (Steger, CD #1)

On CD #1, Maurice Steger plays this with a treble (alto) recorder in f (a’ = 416 Hz). This is one of the few pieces on CD #1 that Maurice Steger did not play in the concert in Zurich last year, for the obvious reason that the concert featured a pure string orchestra (apart from the continuo), while this is a chamber concerto for three wind instruments and continuo.

The first movement of this concerto somehow reminds me of the opening movement (Allegro) in Vivaldi’s violin concerto in A minor, RV 356 (No.6 from the collection “L’Estro armonico”, op.3): there is no direct relationship (apart from the tonality, I think), but it’s merely in some general melodic and harmonic similarities (the kind of similarities that might have led Igor Stravinsky to his famous statement that “Vivaldi hasn’t written that many concerti, but rather 80 times the same a-minor concerto”). But perhaps I was working on this for far too long when learning the violin, many years ago? To a lesser degree, this could also be claimed about the last movement (a Presto in the case of RV 356). The slow movement, however, is definitely different: here, it is in A minor, too, while RV 356 features a very nicely, serene and melodic Largo in C major.

Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in G minor, “La Notte”, RV 104

Movements: Largo — Fantasmi: Presto — Largo/Andante — Presto — Il Sonno: Largo — Allegro
Duration: 1’39” + 1’07” + 0’49” + 1’02” + 1’35” + 2’33” = 8’42” (Carmignola, CD #4)

This concerto is closely related to the concerto RV 439, both in the same key of G minor, both entitled “La Notte”. This concerto is listed as “for flute and 2 violins, or 3 violins, bassoon (and basso continuo)” and is included with CD #4 above, played by Giuliano Carmignola on the violin. RV 439 — see below — is listed as for Flute (or recorder), strings and basso continuo.

RV 104 vs. RV 439

The biggest differences between RV 104 and RV 439 are in the “internal” slow movements:

  • in the part between the second movement (Fantasmi, Presto) and the next Presto movement, RV 104 has a movement that switches between Largo (with solo) and Andante interjections in the continuo, whereas RV 439 features a slow, solemn melody (Largo), played by the solo (now typically with rich ornamentation), with continuo accompaniment.
  • with the second “theme movement”, entitled “Il Sonno” (the dream), Carmignola’s interpretation leaves out the solo entirely, but takes the slow arpeggi on the harpsichord into the foreground, surrounded by strings with dampers (con sordini). In RV 439, CD #3 above (with Conrad Steinmann) has no arpeggi, but a slow, melody line (without ornaments) on the solo instrument (again with accompaniment of strings con sordini), whereas CD #1 with Maurice Steger retains the arpeggi from RV 104, this time played on a theorbo, mixed into the rest of the accompaniment.

“La Notte” is one of the most popular concerti by Vivaldi. The choice between RV 104 and RV 439 is not really a crucial one. In fact, the spread of interpretations is broader than the differences between the two versions. I would characterize Giuliano Carmignola’s excellent interpretation (CD #4 above) as taking the “golden middle route” between Conrad Steinmann’s straight and (by now) more traditional approach (CD #3) and Maurice Steger’s mind-boggling virtuosity (on CD #1) that some people might call exaggerated.

Concerto for Recorder, 2 Violins and Continuo in A minor, RV 108

Movements: Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 2’44” + 2’05” + 2’36” = 7’24” (Steger, CD #2)

This concerto is found on CD #2 above, played by Maurice Steger on an alto recorder in f’ (after Jacob Denner, by Adrian Brown, The Netherlands). It is more of a chamber concerto, with “slim” accompaniment by two violins and a small chamber organ (Diego Fasolis) as continuo, in the slow movement with the addition of a mandolin for additional contouring / rhythmic structure. A little known, but nevertheless very nice, small concerto.

Concerto for Strings and Continuo in A minor, RV 127

Movements: Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 1’24” + 1’41” + 1’04” = 4’07” (Diego Fasolis / I Barocchisti, CD #2)

This included with CD #2 above. It’s not a concerto in today’s terms. In the classical period, one might have called this a symphony. In the fast movements, there is no soloist. But the string orchestra (I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis) offers rhythmically strong, joyful music in a virtuosic, enthralling performance. The slow movement is a slow, contemplative sequence of chords, linked by short violin cadenzas — very nice! The sforzati in the final movement (and especially the final, closing “crescendo accent”) are fun, but almost exaggerated.

Concerto for Strings and Continuo in G minor, RV 155

Movements: Adagio — Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 1’48” + 1’22” + 3’00” + 2’39” = 8’47” (Diego Fasolis / I Barocchisti, CD #2)

Similar to RV 127, and on the same CD #2: this is more of a short symphony for string orchestra with continuo than a concerto in the classical definition. It’s very compact (especially in the first two movements), virtuosic, enthralling in the fast movements. The Largo is a richly ornamented violin solo with organ accompaniment (Diego Fasolis), and also the last movement features a violin solo — playful and virtuosic (Diulio Galfetti, concertmaster of I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis). Overall, this feels like “half symphony, half violin concerto”: excellent, very entertaining music, once more.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in E♭ major, RV 375

Movements: Allegro non molto — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 4’58” + 4’02” + 3’46” = 12’43” (Steger, CD #1)

To me, this is one of the most joyful and serene concerti of this composer, with some really fast ornaments & solo passages in the first movement, which otherwise does not feel hectic: really Allegro non molto, even though the soloist may not always feel that way! Maurice Steger plays this (on CD #1) on a descant recorder in b’, after Denner, by Ernst Meyer. The slow movement is a beautiful, serene cantabile scene, played by few strings and light, transparent continuo accompaniment. The last movement is again really fun, extremely playful, full of coquetries in the solo part. To me, one of the highlights on Steger’s most recent CD!

Concerto for Flautino, Strings and Continuo in D major, “Il Gardellino”, RV 428 (op.10/3)

Movements: Allegro — Cantabile — Allegro
Duration: 3’40” + 2’53” + 2’27” = 8’58” (Steger, CD #2)

For details / a brief discussion see above under RV 90; the two concerti are closely related.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in F major, “Tutti gli Instrumenti Sordini”, RV 434 (op.10/5)

Movements: Allegro non molto — Largo e cantabile — Allegro
Duration: 3’16” + 3’42” + 1’44” = 8’41” (Steger, CD #2)

For once, a concerto that does not want to impress with virtuosity. Instead, it stands out with its special sound coloring: all string accompaniment is playing with mutes, the continuo is (suitably) played just with organ and theorbo rather than harpsichord, and so the solo part (on CD #2, Maurice Steger playing an excellent alto recorder in f’ by Frederick Morgan, after Peter Bressan) stands out nicely from the accompaniment.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 437 (op.10/6)

Movements: Allegro — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 3’28” + 1’52” + 1’59” = 7’18” (Steger, CD #2)

A very “Vivaldi-esque” concerto with remarkable themes, reminding of some concerti in “L’Estro armonico”, op.3: robust, popular, harmonically simple, but really catchy (movement 3 is the most virtuosic of the three). Played by Maurice Steger on CD #2, with an alto recorder in f’ after Jacob Denner, by Adrian Brown, The Netherlands.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 438

Movements: Allegro — Andante — Allegro
Duration: 3’12” + 2’55” + 3’06” = 9’11” (Steger, CD #2)

This concerto resembles RV 437 in its use of “popular”, catchy themes in the fast movements. The slow movement is darker, more thoughtful, sometimes dramatic (with bassoon in the continuo, also in the fast movements of RV 437). Maurice Steger plays this on a soft and full-sounding voice flute (tenor recorder in d’) after Peter Bressan and Thomas Stanesby, by Frederick Morgan, Australia.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in G minor, “La Notte”, RV 439 (op.10/2)

Movements: Largo — Fantasmi: Presto — Largo — Presto — Il Sonno: Largo, tutti gl’stromenti sordini — Allegro
Duration: 1’34” + 0’56” + 0’54” + 1’11” + 1’31” + 2’19” = 8’22” (Steinmann, CD #3) — 2’09” + 1’52” + 0’46” + 1’56” + 1’55” = 8’36” (Steger, CD #1)

For general remarks and a quick comparison to the closely related concerto RV 104 see above. I’m not re-iterating the comparison to RV 104 here, but I’m merely comparing the two recordings of RV 439. This concerto was also published as part of Vivaldi’s op.10, as op.10 No.2 (op.10/2)

  • on CD #1 (recorded 2014), Maurice Steger plays with a treble (alto) recorder in f by Ernst Meyer, after an instrument by P. Bressan; similarly,
  • on CD #3 (recorded 1978), Conrad Steinmann plays an alto recorder in f by Friedrich von Huene, Boston, after an instrument by J.C. Denner, ca. 1700.

Conrad Steinmann

30 years ago, Conrad Steinmann (*1951) was one of Europe’s leading recorder players. On the above CD, he is playing with the Cappella Clementina under Helmut Müller-Brühl: an early HIP recording using “authentic instruments”. I have heard Conrad Steinmann over 30 years ago in concert, and I was fascinated by his playing. Meanwhile, he has been focusing on teaching activities, and on playing with various ensembles, showing less presence as soloist in concert halls. For sure, he is now being overshadowed by artists such as Maurice Steger and many others. And it is amazing to see how much HIP performances have progressed over the past 35 – 40 years.

Conrad Steinmann’s playing is detailed, virtuosic, accurate, using “proper” baroque ornamentation, etc., and similarly, the playing of the Cappella Clementina is correct and “authentic” by 1978 standards — yet, when comparing this to Maurice Steger’s interpretation, it appears far too orderly, straight, lacking “Klangrede”, i.e., agogics, detail in articulation, dynamics and expression, especially at a small-scale. One is tempted to call this serious, if not boring, as overall, it lacks Steger’s enthusiastic, overwhelming joy of playing! That’s not to criticize Conrad Steinmann (who took his first recorder lessons with my late father-in-law!), but merely an indication for how much historically informed playing has progressed over the past 35 years.

Maurice Steger

Maurice Steger (*1971) plays this with exuberant virtuosity, at a speed at which fast notes are barely discernible. His speed of articulation is incredible. I don’t mean to say that it’s all perfect: for Steger, refreshing joy and enthusiasm are more important than sheer instrumental perfection. For example, there is the occasional high whistling from an overblown tone: it’s still an enthralling performance which truly evokes pictures of night-time moods, then scary nightmares, the subsequent relief of a deep, dreamless sleep, etc.

Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in C minor, RV 441

Movements: Allegro non molto — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 4’53” + 1’48” + 3’46” = 10’26” (Steinmann, CD #3)

This is one of four concerti on Conrad Steinmann‘s CD (#3 above). The above concerto RV 439 is the only one where I have a comparison recording, but still, in the case of RV 441 (which also used to be listed as P.440)  I would claim that in terms of extreme virtuosity and instrumental perfection (solo and accompaniment) this can’t compete with Steger’s more recent recordings, even though it is played really well, with excellent technique and articulation. The only “hair in the soup” is in occasional, slight tempo instabilities, probably attributable to the accompaniment. One should keep in mind that most of Vivaldi’s recorder concerti are among the most demanding in the recorder repertoire, unlike with the violin concerti, where there are certainly many that are playable by amateur musicians.

Concerto for Flautino, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 443

Movements: [Allegro] — Largo — Allegro molto
Duration: 3’19” + 4’33” + 2’09” = 9’59” (Steger, CD #1)

In an interview, Maurice Steger stated that “one more time” he would play and record these extremely virtuosic Vivaldi concerti. He almost sounded as if he was tired of playing this music, or maybe just of the effort it takes even virtuosi like himself to get these concerti ready at this level? However, from listening to this concerto one would think that this can hardly be true. Both the music and the interpretation are so sparkling, so joyful! True, this is probably one of the most virtuosic concerti on these CDs, at least at the tempo played here. I can easily imagine that even experienced recorder players take the last movement at half of Steger’s tempo — and they might still find this challenging! Another example of mind-boggling artistry!

Concerto for Flautino, Strings and Continuo in C major, RV 444

Movements: Allegro non molto — Largo — Allegro molto
Duration: 4’24” + 1’34” + 3’00” = 8’56” (Steinmann, CD #3)

This is the last of four concerti on Conrad Steinmann‘s CD (#3 above). A popular concerto, though again technically demanding. Vivaldi must have been a real master on the recorder! Steinmann doesn’t go overboard with virtuosity and agogics, at least not nearly as much as Steger, but I would call this played very well, clean, virtuosic, with good intonation. Here, he plays a sopranino (recorder in f”) after J.C. Denner, by Friedrich von Huene, Boston.

Concerto for Flautino, Strings and Continuo in A minor, RV 445

Movements: Allegro — Larghetto — Allegro
Duration: 4’17” + 2’03” + 3’24” = 9’43” (Steinmann, CD #3)

The beginning of this concerto somehow reminds me of the violin concerto No.6 in A minor from the “L’Estro armonico”, op.3 (RV 356). The melody is definitely not the same, but the “musical attitude” perhaps? This is the second of the four concerti on Conrad Steinmann‘s CD (#3 above), again played on flautino, see RV 444. As the other concerti on this CD, this is by no means a piece for beginners…

Concerto for 2 Recorders, 2 Oboes, 2 Violins, Bassoon, Strings and Continuo in D minor, RV 566

Movements: Allegro assai — Largo — Allegro
Duration: 2’10” + 2’32” + 2’53” = 7’34” (Steger / Pasche, CD #1)

Along with the “concerto – symphonies” above (RV 127 and RV 155), this piece is a bit of an outsider on this Maurice Steger‘s latest CD (#1 above). This is one of Vivaldi’s “concerti per molti strumenti”, in this case featuring a “concertino” group with two recorders, two oboes, and two violins, accompanied by strings, bassoon and basso continuo. Maurice Steger is joined by the young recorder player Céline Pasche, the other parts are played by musicians from I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis. The playing is very virtuosic on all parts, extremely well-coordinated, full of joy and excitement in the fast movement, very melodic in the middle movement.


Conclusions:

I can only recommend both of Maurice Steger‘s CDs (#1 and #2 above). You will not be bored, for sure, even though they can’t serve as a model for how any but the very few, very top recorder players should play these concerti.

Conrad Steinmann (CD #3 above) is not nearly as extravagant or going overboard as Maurice Steger. That recording is starting to show signs of age. Though, I mostly attribute those to the accompaniment (Cappella Clementina under Helmut Müller-Brühl), which often sounds somewhat heavy, too rigid / straight. It can’t compete with the agility, virtuosity and differentiation that is found with I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis on Maurice Steger’s CDs. On the other hand, in this case, the overlap between Maurice Steger’s and Conrad Steinmann’s recordings is in a single concerto (RV 439), and otherwise Steinmann’s CD is nicely complementing Maurice Steger’s CDs.

Although really just a side-track in this posting, I still would also like to recommend Giuliano Carmignola‘s CD with the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca (CD #4 above). Besides the three concerti discussed above (“Il Gardellino” RV 90, “La Pastorella” RV 95, and “La Notte” RV 104), the CD (named “Concerti della Natura”) includes four additional concerti, most of them very popular and well-known, and all played at the same level as those discussed above:

  • E♭ major (op.8/5), “La Tempesta di Mare”, RV 253
  • B♭ major (op.8/10), “La Caccia”, RV 362
  • A major, “Il Rosignuolo”, RV 335a
  • G major, “Alla Rustica”, RV 151

Addendum:

Maurice Steger played most of the concerti on first CD above in a concert in Zurich. This concert served as first presentation / “inauguration” of the CD. See the post “Maurice Steger / ZKO, Zurich, 2014-10-28“.


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