CHARLES AVISON: Concerti After Scarlatti – Accademia Mandolinistica Pugliese – Digressione Music DCTT63, 75:05 [Distr. by Naxos] (10/28/16) ***½:
(Leonardo Lospalutti, director/ Mauro Squillante; 1rst mandolin / Gaetano Ariani; 2nd mandolin / Valerio Fusillo; mandolo / Antonio Barracchia; mandocello)
Charles Avison’s Scarlatti Concerti treated to an all-mandolin extravaganza.
One might imagine that, when Domenico Scarlatti finally published his epochal “essercizi per gravicembalo” in 1742, his fame would have soared back in his native Italy. There, his work would have found both a cultivated audience and the keyboard virtuosi capable of the radical demands of the new music. Moreover, the name Scarlatti would have been a well-recognized brand. But as it happened, it was in England that Scarlatti’s music had the largest influence. Scarlatti was, to quote Burney, “the wonder and delight of every hearer who had a spark of enthusiasm about him, and could feel new and bold effects intrepidly produced by the breach of almost all the old and established rules of composition” (Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti). Of course, the London music scene was already dominated by Handel and Geminiani. Continental composers enjoyed a great period of commercial success in the 18th Century. However, the way Scarlatti made his way has less to do with diffusion from the principle music centers as with a single individual who championed his works, one Roseingrave. This was a friend from Scarlatti’s youth, an enterprising and peripatetic keyboard virtuoso whose claim to fame was that he famously once bested his pal in a harpsichord contest. He made frequent contact with Scarlatti in Madrid, copied works, performed pieces from manuscripts and, later, had a hand in some English editions of the Essercizi. This close contact with the most original composer alive in mid-century would have no doubt given him magical powers with the growing audience for public music.
The story which leads us to the recording at hand began when Roseingrave found his way to the Newcastle where Charles Avison, an all-around musical impresario, publisher, editor and composer, was in the business of converting his English audiences to the Italian taste. Avison produced Handel, Corelli and Geminiani. He adapted the music for amateur orchestras who were fronted by a couple of professional soloists. He was at the beginning of the classical music business for the newly arrived middle-class. Apparently, one day Roseingrave took out 12 sonatas from his suitcase – they happened to belong to an earlier publication than the Essercizi – and flopped them down on Avison’s desk. Soon it became clear that he was in possession of rare goods. He undertook his orchestration of these works for his band of house amateurs. This involved fixing up some bits here and there, “normalizing” some extravagant passages, and generally flattening out Domenico’s spiky genius. But no matter, in the end he had something that is ⅔ Scarlatti (and this is not even the Scarlatti from his last and greatest period – as in his little sonatas for harpsichord). There was real charm, if not genius.
From that time to the present day, some top-notch traveling fiddler would bring luster to the performance of these lively concoctions. Presumably, it might be possible to switch out a fiddle for a cello even though the score seems written for an instrument tuned in fourths. But let’s say your fiddler was out with the pox. Could you substitute a mandolinist? It seems like an odd choice but why not? In both range and tuning, the instrument is congruous with the violin, and the exotic flavor of this popular Spanish folk-instrument would not be out of place on these colorful pieces.
In fact, the premise of the recording under review here starts with my hypothetical scenario of switching out a violin for a mandolin and leads by a twisted syllogism (which I nevertheless admire) to a startling conclusion: dispense with the violins altogether in favor of an entire mandolin orchestra. The liner notes add some ingenious arguments for this mandolinistic parade. I leave the reader to weigh their plausibility. First argument: Scarlatti would have been very familiar with the instrument and must have enjoyed its character; “If the mandolin was given space and attention by Domenico Scarlatti, why not return the favor?” Second we are reminded that the “plectrum instruments are fighting a common battle: relegated for decades to the status of “lower” and popular instruments, the mandolin has instead consistently shored (and often silently the European musical history. And through the mandolin ensemble allowed the diffusion, in heterogeneous social strata, of the great musical masterpieces of the moment.” It is a rare reaction to reading classical music liner notes to find oneself rolling off the couch in helpless laughter but that was my reaction of this hyperbolic balderdash.
As it happens, I am fond of the mandolin and devoted to Domenico and his musical offspring, so I was pleased to set aside over the quirky logic and hear what the Orchestra a plettro mandolinistico puglieses had to offer.
There are 6 concerti grosso, typically of four movements. They are recognizably Italian, brightly melodic and dancing. The largos are not as slow as you would think, nor are the vivace more than a brisk trot. The melodic line for two instruments is fronted by a ensemble of mandolins, giving it a thick texture like monstrous harpsichord. But now and again the single voices of the small instrument come through with delicate effect. There are both a mandola and the exotic mandocello neither of which ever quite step forward from the general din of plucking. Also bolstering the orchestra pluck-a-thon are chitarre and two basses. All told, this is the pluckiest ensemble you have ever heard or could imagine. There is little to choose between the specific concerti other than key signatures, which are all friendly to the mandolin.
Clearly this ensemble is making the most of its opportunity to stake its claim to this music. There is no lack of gusto in the performance, nor of the exacting demands of running together over the hills and dales (gently English hills) of the score. At over 75 minutes there is a lot of exercise for both fingers and ears and the performance may exceed the stamina of quite a large portion of the audience if taken at one go.
Mandolin orchestra players and enthusiasts will not want to miss this bracing recording. It may be a charter for more “shoring up” of the musical tradition. I can see the intrepid leader of this group, proposing a toast “Next, the Brandenburg Concertos!” And why not?
TrackList: Concerto Grosso No 1. In A Major; Concerto Grosso No. 2 in G major; Concerto Grosso No. 3 in D Minor; Concerto Grosso No. 6 in D major; Concerto Grosso No. 8 in E Minor; Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Major