Locatelli: Complete Edition
Pietro Antonio Locatelli is known first and foremost as the composer of twelve virtuosic violin concertos which were published as his opus 3 in 1733. In this capacity he is considered the "founding-father of modern instrumental virtuosity" as the Dutch musicologist Albert Dunning writes in New Grove.
Locatelli was a child prodigy and became a member of the instrumental ensemble of the basilica in his birthplace, Bergamo, at the age of 14. In 1711 he went to Rome, where he came under the influence of Corelli, although there is no evidence that he was his pupil. He spent most of his lifetime in Amsterdam. In all probability this was mainly because the city was the centre of music publishing in Europe. His opus 1 was published by Le Cène, who also printed other collections of orchestral music. Locatelli took care of printing and selling his own chamber music, though, which resulted in the publication of seven collections, from the op. 2 to the op. 8. As at his death he turned out to be quite prosperous he must have been a pretty good entrepreneur. He also sold musical instruments and strings, and collected books and art. Although he mostly kept his distance from social life in the city he regularly gave concerts at his home, probably for a circle of wealthy citizens.
Locatelli was arguably the greatest virtuoso of his time, and he himself certainly thought so. The story goes that after performing a dazzling solo he exclaimed: "Ah! What do you have to say about that?" However, if it comes down to style and taste, opinions were sharply divided. The Dutch organist Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, while acknowledging Locatelli's ability to captivate his audience with his virtuosity, stated that his playing was "so brutal that sensitive ears found it unbearable". There is a report about a concert by Locatelli and his French colleague Jean-Marie Leclair. It says that Leclair played like an angel and Locatelli like the Devil. Although there is considerable doubt about whether this concert ever took place, the comment sheds some light on the controversial nature of Locatelli as a performer. The same is true of his compositions. The English journalist Charles Burney showed little enthusiasm for his music which "excites more surprise than pleasure". His contemporary Charles Avison, a staunch admirer of Locatelli's colleague Francesco Geminiani, characterised Locatelli's music as "defective in various harmony and true invention". There are some pretty harsh judgements in modern times as well; the article on Locatelli in the 1954 edition of the English music encyclopedia Grove states: "He oversteps all reasonable limits and aims at effects which, being adverse to the very nature of the violin, are neither beautiful nor musical, but ludicrous and absurd."
The unease about Locatelli's style of playing in his own time may also have been the fruit of the changes in musical taste during the 1730s and beyond. There was a longing for a more 'natural' style, away from pyrotechnics for their own sake. It was the time when Nature was seen as the source of Truth, and the closer a man got to Nature, the closer he got to the Truth. The specimens of these ideals were Christoph Willibald von Gluck in opera and Giuseppe Tartini in the field of instrumental music, and particularly the playing of and composing for the violin. Today the scepticism about his output has not disappeared which could explain why it is not regularly performed and recorded, certainly not in comparison with the likes of Vivaldi and Geminiani. That makes the complete recording of his oeuvre which is here released by Brilliant Classics particularly welcome. It gives anyone who is interested in 18th-century violin music the chance to judge for himself if there is any truth in the assessments which I have quoted above.
Let us turn first to the violin concertos which are the part of his oeuvre which is probably most controversial. Locatelli published them as his op. 3 under the title L'Arte del violino, comprising twelve concertos for violin, strings and bc. He added 24 capriccios for violin solo, one for every fast movement, as a kind of cadenza. In those days music was printed for performing musicians, and only in parts - scores did not exist. Question is how many violinists of those days were able to play the solo parts. The solos in the concertos as such are already difficult enough, although probably within the grasp of the best violinists of the time. The capriccios in particular are extremely difficult. If these concertos were played elsewhere it is possible that the capriccios were omitted. After all, they were added with the indication ad libitum. However, the publication may have been intended as a demonstration of Locatelli's own playing technique in the first place. These capriccios clearly inspired Nicolò Paganini in the composition of his Capriccios op. 1. In the booklet to a recent disc Locatelli's Capriccio No. 7 and Paganini's Capriccio No.1 were both printed and they show a remarkable similarity.
Having listened to these concertos I have come to the conclusion that the negative assessments don't do them full justice. There is plenty to enjoy, and the slow movements are not devoid of expression. It is probably the capriccios which are the most problematic. It is certainly compelling to hear these escapades on the violin and it is surprising how Locatelli explores the instrument's possibilities. Their musical quality is variable: the capriccio played in the closing movement of the Concerto No. 3 in F, for instance, is musically rewarding. As for the Concerto No. 11 in A and its capriccios where Locatelli explores the highest positions of the violin, up to the 19th, these are a demonstration of technical prowess rather than substantial musical statements. It is partly down to the performance whether the musical qualities of these concertos and the capriccios come across. Ruhadze produces a beautiful tone, and even in the most difficult passages there is no hint of stress. It is one of the virtues of these performances that they go beyond mere technical exhibition. Ruhadze and his colleagues underline the musical substance of these concertos in a convincing manner.
Among Locatelli's chamber music the Sonatas for violin and bc op. 6 are most close to the violin concertos. These sonatas certainly reflect the composer's own technical skills. Improvisation is also an important element here. Several sonatas include extended cadenzas, often over a pedal point in the bass. The last sonata even ends with a capriccio, called Capriccio Prova dall'Intonazione, in which the violin is unaccompanied until the final cadenza. Here Locatelli moves away from the traditional pattern as it had been established by Corelli. Most sonatas are in three movements and open with an andante which is followed by two fast movements. The closing movements are mostly in the form of an aria with variations. Two sonatas are in four movements, but again Locatelli follows his own path: the Sonata VII in f minor, for instance, opens with a largo which is followed by a grave, a vivace and the common aria with the indication cantabile. Virtuosity is the name of the game here, and in this respect these sonatas are impressive. The sequences of variations in particular are used to explore the capabilities of the player and his instrument; in some variations the violin moves to the highest positions. In regard to expression the listener is probably less well served. If I want to hear expressive violin sonatas I probably won't turn to Locatelli's op. 6. That is not the fault of the performers. Once again Igor Ruhadze delivers impressive interpretations in which he fully explores the features of these sonatas.
As trio sonatas were intended for amateurs they are usually far less demanding. That is certainly the case with Locatelli's trio sonatas. The op. 8 is remarkable in that Locatelli here brings the two genres together in one collection. It comprises ten sonatas which in itself was highly unusual: almost every collection included either six or twelve pieces. It seems likely that op. 8 is a collection of left-overs and consists of pieces he had not yet published. The inclusion of trio sonatas made this opus suitable for amateurs and because of that the solo sonatas could not be too complicated. They include several features which we also met in the op. 6 sonatas but virtuosity is not as prominent as in the other collection. The most brilliant sonata is No. 6 which is the last solo piece. Some of these sonatas follow the pattern of the Corellian sonata. The four remaining pieces are trio sonatas, and here Locatelli comes up with a surprise: the last one is not for two violins but for violin and cello. It is probably the result of a commission from an amateur cellist or Locatelli may have written it on his own initiative for some rich citizen in Amsterdam.
The op. 2 and op. 5 are entirely devoted to trio sonatas. The latter comprises six sonatas for either violins or transverse flutes. That in itself explains why they are not overly virtuosic from the angle of violin technique. Obviously something like double-stopping was out of the question. Stylistically they are closer to the ideals of those who advocated a more 'natural' style. Again the number and order of the movements is various. The Sonata VI in G is different in that it comprises five movements. The latter is the most 'baroque' in that it is entirely structured as a canon. The ensemble is split into two 'choirs', each with one violin and basso continuo. This example of strict counterpoint is quite unique in Locatelli's oeuvre. Some movements in this set include daring harmonies, for instance the closing vivace of the Sonata IV in C and the Pastorale which closes the Sonata V in d minor. The latter is arguably the most 'modern' of the set, with the violins playing largely in parallel motion in the second movement (vivace).
These sonatas are included here in two different performances, reflecting the alternative scorings indicated by Locatelli. Musica ad Rhenum doesn't adhere strictly to the suggested scoring of two flutes; in some cases flute and violin share the melody parts. Those who know other recordings by this ensemble will not be surprised about the treatment of the tempi. There are many moments where the ensemble slows down in order to enhance the tension and improvisatory elements are a fixed part of Musica ad Rhenum's interpretations. I am all in favour of this but sometimes they go a little too far. The largo from the Sonata III in E ends with a ridiculously long appoggiatura.
The same features are noticeable in the ensemble's recording of the twelve Sonatas op. 2 for transverse flute and bc. It may come as a surprise that Locatelli composed and published a set of sonatas specifically intended for the transverse flute. However, the inventory of goods compiled at his death included three flutes. He even taught the flute to an amateur from Amsterdam, Mr. Romswinkel. Moreover, it has been observed that several sonatas have also been found in versions for violin. In those cases the flute sonatas may be later adaptations, and this could explain the violinistic features in some of them. The layout is varied here as well: five of the sonatas are in three movements, the others in four. The last sonata is like the closing work from the op. 5: it is in a strict canon; only here the basso continuo is not split. The fact that a number of copies of this set have been found across Europe attests to its popularity.
Musica ad Rhenum treats these sonatas with considerable freedom. In the liner-notes to the first release of this recording - unfortunately not included here - Jed Wentz discusses some aspects of performance practice. Among them is the freedom of the cellist to move away from the line as written down by the composer. A specimen of that can be heard in the last movement from the Sonata I. In the largo which opens the Sonata II Wentz seems to play a kind of cadenza which is rather unusual in a sonata. This kind of thing results in these performances being theatrical and full of surprises. However, I find it hard to believe that it was the intention of a composer like Locatelli that the performer should improvise a solo - without basso continuo - lasting over three minutes as Wentz does here in the first allegro from the Sonata VI. Another issue is that of consistency: why do we get such a long solo in that movement and not in other ones?
At the end of this review we turn to the orchestral music, in this case the genre of the concerto grosso. This was one of the most common genres of instrumental music and here again - as in the case of the trio sonatas - it was Arcangelo Corelli who had established the model. The orchestra was made up of strings and bc and divided into a concertino of two violins and cello and a ripieno, comprising the other instruments. Obviously the size of the whole ensemble could differ from one occasion to the next. From Corelli's concerti grossi we know that they could be performed by a large group of up to forty instruments and with a mixture of strings and wind but also with the smallest formation of two violins, cello and bc, turning them into trio sonatas. That is the reason the term 'orchestral music' is not the most appropriate here. Locatelli's Concerti grossi op. 1 were published in 1721 and strongly adhere to the tradition established by Corelli. The set comprises twelve concertos: eight da chiesa and four da camera. The Concerto No. 8 is - as in Corelli's op. 6 - a Christmas concerto which ends with a Pastorale. That is about the only part which is reminiscent of Corelli's Christmas concerto or Christmas music in general. The other movements are quite different. Locatelli follows his own path in that he extends the concertino from three to four by including a viola part. In two of the concerti grossi he even adds a second viola part. There are also some solo passages for the first violin and these have some virtuosic traits but certainly not of the kind we meet in the violin concertos or the sonatas op. 6.
In 1735 Locatelli published his op. 4, a collection of six concerti grossi and six so-called Introduttioni teatrali. This set shows a greater variety in structure: the introduttioni teatrali are all in three movements, fast - slow - fast, just like the Italian opera overture. It is not known whether they were written as such, for instance for performance in the Amsterdam city theatre. The concertino is again for two violins, viola and cello. That is also the case in the concerti grossi; here the number of movements varies from three to five. The violin parts are more virtuosic than in the op. 1 or the introduttioni. The most remarkable is the No. 8 which has the addition a imitazione de' corni da caccia. In the first three movements the concertino plays in unison with the corresponding ripieno parts, but in the last two movements the first violin has a solo role and at this point we hear some of the virtuosity of the solo concertos; that includes double-stopping suggesting two horns as the title indicates. The set closes with a concerto with four obbligato violin parts, a form which was practised in Rome in the early decades of the 18th century.
Lastly, in 1741 the six concerti grossi op. 7 were published, not by Locatelli himself, but by Adriaen van der Hoeven in Leyden. The number of movements varies from three to five. The concertino is usually made up of two violins, viola and cello; one concerto omits the viola. The last concerto is the most unusual and - because of that - the one which is most frequently performed. It is a kind of instrumental opera, called Il pianto d'Arianna. The fate of this mythological figure who is left by her lover Theseus was the subject of many cantatas and operas in the baroque era. The turmoil of Ariadne's emotions is vividly depicted with purely instrumental means. One wonders what an opera from Locatelli's pen - had he written one - would have been like.
The theatrical character of this work is well conveyed. It is one of the few concertos from Locatelli's pen which is available in various recordings. For the rest of his concerti grossi only a few alternatives are available. Here I would especially recommend the Freiburger Barockorchester which recorded some of the op. 1 and the Introduttioni teatrali from the op. 4. I probably prefer these, but that is rather a matter of taste and doesn't imply that the performances by Igor Ruhadze and his Ensemble Violini Capricciosi are inferior. I have certainly enjoyed their performances as much as Stuart Sillitoe.
If you are interested in Locatelli and want to have more than just excerpts from his oeuvre this is a set not to be missed. Overall this is a major achievement and the first attempt to do this composer real justice. He has more to offer than virtuosic violin concertos. In some cases one may ask what is the point of releasing large boxes with so many discs — which is a speciality of Brilliant Classics — but in this case I have no doubt that this is an important addition to the discography.
– MusicWeb International (Johan van Veen)
Catalog Number: BRI94358
Label: Brilliant Classics
Composer: Pietro Antonio Locatelli
Conductor: Richard Kapp
Orchestra/Ensemble: Ensemble Violini Capricciosi, Musica ad Rhenum, Philharmonia Virtuosi, Pro Musica Kiev, Pro Musica Prague
Performer: Balázs Maté, Daria Gorban, Igor Ruhadze, Jed Wentz, Job Ter Haar, Manfred Kraemer, Marcelo Bussi, Marion Moonen, Mela Tenenbaum, Norbert Kunst, Tis Marang, Ulrike Wild