Nicholas McGegan - Philharmonia Baroque
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Arcangelo Corelli was at work preparing his Opus Six in 1711 and wrote a dedication for the collection in 1712. However, the twelve "Concert Grossi with a Concertino of two Violins and Violoncello obbligati and two other Violins, Viola and Bass for the Concerto grosso that can be doubled at will" did not appear until 1714, the year after the composer's death, issued by the printer Etienne Roger of Amsterdam. As the title specifies, these works juxtapose the sound of a trio-sonata group (two violins, cello, and continuo) with a string ensemble, also provided with a continuo instrument - a Roman practice that goes back to Alessandro Stradella around 1675. (In the original performances of the concertos, the solo violins were played by Corelli and Matteo Fornari, the solo cello by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier). The first part of the collection (Concerti I-VIII) consists of concertos corresponding to the church sonata type established in Corelli's previously published Trio sonatas and Sonatas for solo violin: an alternating succession of slow and fast movements, plus an ad libitum Pastorale at the end of Concerto VIII, the celebrated concerto for Christmas Eve (which may have been composed as early as 1690). The "Second Part for Chamber" (Concerti IX-XII) corresponds to the chamber sonata type, "Preludes, Allemandes, Correnti, Gigues, Sarabands, Gavottes, and Minuets".
Like every production in Corelli's small output, the Concerti Grossi were polished to perfection in private performance before appearing in print. George Muffat reported that he had heard in Rome in 1682 "with great pleasure and astonishment, several concertos... composed by the artful Signor Arcangelo Corelli, and beautifully performed with the utmost accuracy by a great number of instrumental players". (Although Roman orchestras sometimes contained more than eighty musicians - one performance directed by Corelli in 1689 featured 39 violins, 10 violas, 17 cellos, 10 basses, lute, two trumpets, and continuo keyboards - a more typical ensemble, as directed by Corelli in 1690, consisted of the solo concertino with harpsichord continuo and a concerto grosso composed of four violins, two violas, cello, and organ). Francesco Geminiani noted the "uncommon accuracy" of their performance and marvelled at the unison bowings Corelli demanded, so that "at his rehearsals, which constantly preceded every public performance of his concertos, he would immediately stop the band if he discovered one irregular bow".
It is not so much the virtuosity demanded by the concertos as the classical elegance and polish achieved only by such long preparation of these deceptively simple works that creates much of their effect. Such performances explain why Corelli's concertos swept Europe after their initial appearance in print: some seventeen editions appeared between 1714 and 1790.
Generations of music students have learned the standard order of the church sonata as crystallised in the publication of Corelli: slow-fast-slow-fast, with the initial fast movement contrapuntal in texture, the concluding one more open and dance-like. Although the first eight concertos of Opus 6 are concerti da chiesa, Corelli presents a much greater variety of formal patterns and generic references, with clear reminiscences of the multi-movement instrumental works of his Bolognese heritage. The most frequent pattern for opening movements in the first six concerti grossi is that of a slow introduction followed by a faster movement (Concerti III, IV, V, VI), sometimes with Lullian dotted rhythms suggesting the French ouverture (I, III). The opening movement of Concerto II presents a complex structure of Vivace (in the tonic key)/fugal Allegro/Adagio/Vivace (dominant)/Allegro (dominant)/Largo. The opening movement is followed in all the concertos except Concerto II by a movement in a slower tempo and a pair of faster movements, with an interpolated slow movement in Concerto V.
Corelli's imagination in effects of texture and his range of stylistic reference are as rich as his command of formal variety. The relationship between concertino and concerto grosso is variously treated as cadential emphasis, echo, or solo embellishment of the patterns laid down by the concerto grosso. Particularly notable are the brilliant cello figuration in the first Allegro of Concerto I and the violin figuration in the first Allegro of Concerto V Although the title of the first part of the Concerti Grossi makes no reference to dance music, the rhythms of the dance permeate such movements as the first Largo of Concerto I, the gavotte-like finale of Concerto II, and the gigue-finale of Concerto III
- Frederick Hammond