FRANCESCO MANCINI: Twelve Recorder Concertos – Corina Marti, recorder/ Capella Tiberina/ Paolo Perrone, concertmaster/ Alexandra Nigito, maestro al cembalo – Brilliant Classics 2CD 94324 (2 discs), 59:04; 56:36 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
When I heard the Vivace from Concerto No. 8 in C Minor, with its galloping strings undergirded by the hearty thrum of the continuo, I thought I was in Vivaldi country, finding in his near-contemporary Francesco Mancini a follower of the Venetian master. Actually, however, Mancini was born six years before Vivaldi, in 1672, and more importantly, in the city of Naples, where instrumental composers were for a long time immune to the influence of Vivaldi’s concerti. Unlike the three-movement form that Vivaldi established as the norm, Mancini’s solo concerti follow the older formula for the concerto, modeled on the sonata da chiesa and da camera. So Mancini’s works are in four or five movements. Some of the four-movement pieces follow the format of the sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow-fast). Some have the same suite-like arrangement of movements in alternating tempi as the typical concerto grosso. The aforementioned Concerto No. 8 has five movements marked Vivace, Largo e staccato, Fuga: Allegro, Largo, and Allegro.
Mancini served as first organist of the Royal Chapel in Naples and was appointed maestro di capella in 1707 as reward for leading a deputation of musicians from Royal Chapel to meet the commander of the Austrian army, which had taken possession of the city. When Alessandro Scarlatti returned to Naples in 1708 after an extended stay in other Italian cities, he took up his former title as maestro da capella, Mancini serving as his vice-maestro until Scarlatti’s death in 1725. Like that of most Italian composers, Mancini’s chief pursuit was vocal music and especially opera; he penned over forty works for the stage (plus twelve oratorios and over 200 cantatas). Mancini must have been an operatic force to reckon with in his own day: his Gli amanti generosi, premiered in Naples in 1705, was “among the very first operas sung entirely in Italian on the London stage.” I haven’t studied the subject deeply enough to say for sure, but Mancini may even have been one of those Neapolitan opera composers who bedeviled Vivaldi’s career. After a string of successes in the 1720s, Vivaldi had an uphill battle against the inroads Neapolitan opera was making in Venice. Finally, Vivaldi tried to make his mark in Vienna, where instead he died in obscurity.
Today, fame being what it is, Mancini is virtually unknown as a vocal composer while Vivaldi’s star is constantly on the rise. Mancini is now known chiefly for his recorder concerti. The current twelve were first published in 1725 along with twelve more concerti for recorder and strings by Scarlatti and other composers, including Roberto Valentini (nom de plume of English composer Robert Valentine)—kind of an odd practice different than modern ideas about publishing. At any rate, Mancini’s concerti are well worth knowing. As I hinted, their fast movements often have an appealing Vivaldian élan. There are a number of gems among the twelve, but perhaps my favorite is No. 19 in E Minor. It starts with a lightly dancing Allegrissimo followed by a sad pensive Larghetto. The third movement, Fuga, is not only learned but beautifully poignant. The brief Moderato cast in the major is the most relaxed movement in the work, an apt prelude to the bounding Allegro finale, which recorder soloist Corina Marti and Capella Tiberrina play to the hilt, Baroque guitarist Daniele Caminiti thumping away at his instrument like a drum. (In the grand finale to the disc, a rattling tambourine makes an appearance in the final Allegro of Concerto No. 6 in D Minor. I don’t know if this is warranted on any historical grounds, but it’s surely fun.)
Quite different in character, showing Mancini’s range of expression, is the concerto da chiesa-style Concerto No. 16 in F in four movements, the first a really affecting Affettuoso that recalls Handel, the second a skipping bright-eyed fugue. The final Allegro dances along happily, devil-may-care. While Concerto No. 19 seems all minor-key angst alternating with melancholy reflection, No. 16 appears to reflect a spirit that hasn’t a care in the world. I’d in fact like to hear more of this side of Mancini; major-key concertos (only four) are seriously underrepresented on the disc.
Performance practice in Baroque music seems to improve yearly, as does our understanding of the idiom. Hearing a fine original-instruments performance such as the young ensemble Capella Tiberina delivers is like seeing an entirely successful restoration of an old master, the grime and yellowed varnish stripped away, the colors and perspectives coming up fresh and brand new.
While individual concerti from the set are available on a number of recordings, they’re presented in collections along with the work of other composers. As far as far as I can tell, the current recording is the only one readily available that contains all twelve concerti from the 1725 publication. So this would be a valuable release even if the performances were just serviceable. Thankfully, instead they’re bursting with life yet are also informed by sound musicianship and scholarship. The sonics, from a church in Rome, are every bit as lively, the engineers skillfully turning the resonant setting to the advantage of the music-making. Recommended, certainly!
A cascading sweep of keyboard miniatures