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CD Review: Vivaldian Virtuosity

Spanish violinist Lina Tur Bonet brings abundant flair to Vivaldi’s demanding ‘Il Grosso Mogul’ concerto.


Il Grosso Mogul: Violin Concertos & Sonatas
Lina Tur Bonet, violin, and Musica Alchemica
Pan Classics PC10391

By Andrew J. Sammut

This release emphasizes a side of Vivaldi that startles audiences as much as it impresses them. It includes the first recording of Vivaldi’s original edition of the famous titular concerto (RV 208), a longer version with even more virtuosic displays and technical challenges.

From the outset, Spanish violinist Lina Tur Bonet’s reading of this already fierce work is marked by sudden shifts in extreme tempos, aggressive articulation, brusque chords, and melodic sequences that emphasize drum-like fervor over subtle inflections. The middle instrumental recitative is more like a solo partita, and Tur Bonet adds some near-Romantic scoops into phrases and plunging descents. Things settle down slightly for the third and final movement with Tur Bonet’s singing upper register and carefully placed but prominent vibrato. Lengthy cadenzas make for gripping experiences, albeit more along the lines of a daredevil exhibition than a seamless narrative.

That sense of improvisatory flair continues for the less-frenzied but still intense rest of the program. The Concerto In G (RV311) features Tur Bonet on the violino in tromba marina, a three-string, part-brass violin with a metal resonator likely invented by Vivaldi. Its raspy timbre and sheer volume resemble a viola in the upper register played through a vocoder. The distinct tone suits Tur Bonet’s distinct energy. She dances through the rustic first movement and leans into the instrument’s scratchy edges. Yet in the slow central movement, she gets the instrument to lull — if not whisper — over a spare, aspirating orchestral accompaniment. She also sails through the rapid-fire octaves and the shifts between slurred and detached notes in the Concerto In D (RV 226). Her busy ornamentation in the second movement actually adds flow to the dotted-rhythm aria.

Musica Alchemica matches Tur Bonet in energy and blend, especially impressive given the soloist’s percussive phrasing and willingness to scrape for effect. They handle RV226’s rapid alternation between soloist and orchestra seamlessly. Their clicking thirds behind Tur Bonet in the second movement mine plenty of beauty out of a simple effect. At several times throughout the disc, the rich continuo, pizzicato strings and “thwap” of the bass lines generate stirring cross-rhythms.

Portrait of violinist said to be Vivaldi in the 18th century

Three sonatas for violin and continuo, recorded in 2013 with different musicians, make up the other half of the program. Tur Bonet clearly enjoys the brooding E Minor Sonata (RV17A), with especially evocative dynamics in the second movement. The Sonata In B Minor (RV 37) creeps and sneaks like a villain in one of Vivaldi’s operas. Continuo instruments entering and exiting in the third movement provide a novel and mysterious element. The Sonata in C (RV 4) starts with a noble, Corellian Largo, followed by a more characteristically Vivaldian Allegro alternating long phrases and showier passages. Tur Bonet’s notes point out that Vivaldi’s violin sonatas are often dismissed as academic works. She is obviously determined to show otherwise.

An excerpt from a concerto composed by Vivaldi’s pupil Johann Georg Pisendel and then edited by the master himself rounds out the program. The music indicates that Pisendel knew Vivaldi’s work well but adapted it to his own sense of symmetry and gravity. Musica Alchemica highlights Pisendel’s vibrant dialogue between the first and second violins. Both ensemble and soloist approach the student’s work with the same sharp attacks and heat. The recorded sound from both sessions is similarly up-close and personal, fitting these proficient yet wild performances.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and traditional jazz for All About Jazz, Boston Classical Review, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America, the IAJRC Journal, and his blog, The Pop of Yestercentury. He has also written and copy-edited liner notes for independently-produced historical reissues of jazz from the twenties.

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CD Review: Keyboard Master At Work

A clavichord in Vienna (Photo © JorgeRoyan)


The Joan Benson Collection: Clavichord and Fortepiano
Joan Benson
Clavier Classics CC108

By Karen Cook

Joan Benson has had a formidable career as a recording artist, teacher, pedagogue, and published author. Now, at 93, her prolific performing career is once again visible to the masses through this collection: a two-CD set of works culled from her live performances and studio albums spanning 40 years.

Benson received degrees in the 1940s and ’50s before moving overseas to study with such instructors as Viola Thern and Olivier Messiaen. As she writes, the 1950s were an excellent time to be a clavichord specialist in Europe, since instrument curators were all too happy to find the rare and historic instruments that had been squirreled away for preservation during World War II. When she returned to the United States several years later, she did so with two clavichords. Within just a few years, she debuted at the Carmel Bach Festival, issued her first clavichord recording, and became a professor at Stanford University.

Since that first recording in 1962, Benson released four more albums and a DVD, as well as several articles and methods. Her reputation as a master of clavichord interpretation and a significant influence on the modern revival of historical keyboard instruments and repertoire dating to the 15th century was forged through her teaching and live performances. In fact, her skill as a keyboardist led her to explore the application of clavichord technique first to the fortepiano and later to the modern piano, and her interest in new technology caused her to attempt blending the clavichord with computer-generated sounds.

Any examples of the latter, unfortunately, were not included in this new collection. But what is here is extraordinary. Barry Phillips, her recording engineer, used original tapes of live performances and her studio albums to remaster a number of her recordings. The first disc contains selections from Haydn, Mozart, the little-known Georg Wagensail, and W.F. Bach, the interpretation for whose music Benson has been particularly lauded over the years. The second disc moves backward in time, beginning with a selection of dances and preludes by composers such as G.M. Trabaci and Jean Perrichon before moving once more into the 18th century with works by Froberger and C.P.E. Bach. The disc ends with a trio of pieces by Felix Mendelssohn for the fortepiano and one work for grand piano by John Cage, reflecting Benson’s later turn toward Buddhist philosophies.

Benson couches this recording as an experience in softness, the kind of stillness and quietude that so often escapes the ear in today’s “electrified” societies. There is even a suggestion printed in the liner notes (and on the website for digital downloaders) to keep the volume turned down, in order to best imitate the smaller venues in which these instruments were played. The suggestion is an apt one; listening to this album in a quiet space, devoid of distraction, is an intensely intimate experience. The miking and remastering allow you to hear the individual actions on each instrument, rendering the performances as immediately human.

Benson is renowned for her emotional playing, wrought through an exploration of the dynamic capabilities of these instruments, and such comes through in spades here. Her clavichord performances evoke greater dynamic shifts than I’ve come to expect on recordings of this instrument, and those on the fortepiano are almost startling after hearing the softer instrument first. The markedly different timbres of the various instruments also shine through in fascinating ways; the Polak sounds almost like a music box, for example, while the Cabezón is surprisingly warm and resonant. Finishing with the Cage is a splendid touch; the meditative accumulation of pitches spreads out like ripples on a pond.

For Benson fans, or for any who are as unfamiliar as I was with her work, this collection is a must.

Karen Cook specializes in the music, theory, and notation of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. She is assistant professor of music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

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