“Venice, The Golden Age” – Oboe Concerti by VIVALDI, PORTA, MARCELLO and others – Xenia Löffler, oboe /Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia mundi

Venice, The Golden Age – Oboe Concerti by VIVALDI, PORTA, MARCELLO and others – Xenia Löffler, oboe /Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia mundi HMC 902185, 68:40 ****:

According to legend, the city of Venice was founded in the year 421 A.D. on March 25 –  at noon. The following millennium saw the “city on the lagoon” develop into a world leader in commerce, politics, religion, and culture. Competition from Spain, Elizabethan England and Rome diminished Venice’s status in many of these spheres, but in architecture and music, it remained preeminent at the beginning of the 17th century. In particular, this musical leadership was manifest in the ospidali – ostensibly religious institutions for the early education of boys and girls. The boys were released at age sixteen, but the girls with their more restricted set of options (marriage, the convent or remaining in the ospidale) often stayed into their late teens, twenties and beyond. Women therefore had more opportunity to develop their musical talents.

Of the four ospidali in Venice, the Pietá was the most accomplished in musical education. It became a sort of conservatory and hired the most renowned teachers and composers in the region. This album celebrates their instrumental music – especially for the oboe.

The best known composer involved with the ospidale is Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) and he’s represented with four concerti on this disc. But for some reason the album begins with a pastiche concerto by the composer/academic Uri Rom (b. 1969) who was born in Tel Aviv but now teaches in Berlin. His Concerto Olimpiade takes its name from the Vivaldi opera that provided the first movement theme. The second movement is another Vivaldi tune that J.S. Bach reworked. The final movement copies from two violin concerti, one by Vivaldi, the other by Tessarini. The work is dedicated to the soloist, Ms. Löffler, who is lead oboe for the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Vivaldi concerti follow in the second, fifth, sixth and eighth spots on the playlist. The first, RV134 in E Minor, is called a ripieno concerto (from the word for “full”) wherein the strings and basso continuo all contribute, with no solo passages. This is one of Vivaldi’s most recognizable works. Next is RV364 in B flat, which contains elements believed to have been provided by Vivaldi’s friend the German violinist Georg Pisendel. They spent time together in Venice and in Dresden. One of the largest collection of Vivaldi manuscripts is now located in Dresden because of this association.

Concerto “per Sua Altezza Reale di Sassoma” in G Minor, RV576 is next, and features solo passages for violin, flute, recorder and bassoon as well as oboe.  Finally, RV450 in C Major was adapted for oboe from a bassoon concerto. Vivaldi was a frequent self-borrower, and his cataloguers are even today finding fragments of his work in his own as well as his contemporaries’ work.

Speaking of contemporaries, the other composers on this disc – Allessandro Marcello (1669 – 1747), Giovanni Porta (1675 – 1755), and Carlo Tessarini (1690 – 1766), were all born in or near Venice. All had some links to the ospidali. Marcello’s Concerto in D Minor on this disc was rearranged by Bach for harpsichord and it’s understandable why the catchy melody appealed to the master. Porta’s Sinfonia in D Major is scored for strings,  two oboes,  bassoon and basso continuo, and is in two movements. The manuscript of this piece is also in Dresden. Porta went to Germany in a huff when he lost the competition for Maestro de Capella at St. Mark’s. Carlo Tessarini is represented  by his Overture “La Stravaganza” in D Major. The name was not attached by the composer but by his publisher, seeking to take advantage of  a similarly named success by Vivaldi.

The playing on this album is superb as one would expect from this ensemble, steeped as it is in baroque performance practice. Indeed the disc is nominated for a BBC Music Magazine Award in the concerto category. The 22-person orchestra presents a concert series in several Berlin venues each year, but this material was recorded in a studio there, and the quality of recording is also superb.  The oboe soloist is wonderful – virtuosic without excessive ornamentation.  The only criticism I’d voice is in the sequencing of the playlists – the one on the outside of the album is different from that in the booklet (the accurate one), and the sequence of the write-ups on each piece is again different.

One wonders if the recent sale of Harmonia mundi from its French founders to a Belgian firm, PIAS, will affect the repertoire or high quality of HM recordings. Or will it impact the necessity to have the French text always before the English and German.

—Paul Kennedy

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