Vivaldi & Friends (CD review)

La Folia (Madness) & other concertos. Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra. Avie AV2211.

Harpsichordist and conductor Jeanette Sorrell formed the period-instruments orchestra Apollo's Fire in 1992 in order to create a new baroque orchestra in Cleveland. As the booklet note observes, "Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo's Fire, named after the classical god of music and the sun, is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell's passion for drama and rhetoric."

Certainly, in this collection of baroque and modern music there is no want of creativity or drama, starting with an Iberian dance number by Vivaldi, followed by several transcriptions, and concluding with a recent partial tango, of all things. So, it's a diversified program, one that may be intriguing to some listeners or gimmicky to others. One cannot, however, say it's ordinary.

Things start out with the Concerto grosso, La Folia, arranged by Jeannette Sorrell after Vivaldi's Sonata Op. 1, No. 12. It's the aforementioned Iberian dance, with Moorish influences, a popular form all over Europe in the composer's day. Sorrell's arrangement allows all thirty or so of the players in Apollo's Fire to join in the fun. Despite the music being lively, Sorrell never takes it too fast, keeping it, as is her wont, to a moderate tempo. Nevertheless, the interpretation shows plenty of vitality and kicks off the album in fine style.

Next, we get Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10, RV 580. Later in the program we'll hear Bach's transcription of it for four harpsichords. Here, however, we get to enjoy the interplay among the four string instruments.

After that comes Vivaldi's Summer Concerto from The Four Seasons in an arrangement by Sorrell that replaces the solo violin with her at solo harpsichord. Apparently, it was a widespread practice in the baroque period to transcribe string works for keyboard presentations. Whatever, the result is unique and worthy of a listen. Insofar as the reading goes, though, it seems fairly traditional, with a strong third-movement Presto that brings the music to a rousing close.

Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531 follows, exhibiting good color and several exotic interludes. Then Sorrell offers the Bach treatment of Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins, this time done up for four harpsichords. So, it's Vivaldi via Bach, and you'll hear a little of each composer in the music. The accomplished Apollo's Fire performers make both of the pieces seem entirely different (use your remote to switch back and forth).

The program ends with a modern work, the Tango Concerto in D minor for Two Violas da Gamba by Rene Schiffer (aka Rene Duchiffre, b. 1961), which closes with a tango. Why a modern tango, a purely twentieth-century genre, to end the piece? Well, why not? Schiffer writes that it's "because of the dance's signature elements of rhythmic simplicity and harmonic ostinato, which are also characteristic of many baroque dance forms, including the follia." Fair enough. Anyway, Sorrell and her group bring off this faux-baroque music as playfully as the rest of the album. Besides, Schiffer is the ensemble's principal cellist, so why not give him a shot.

The producers recorded all of the tracks in St. Paul's Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with the first track done live in 2008. It may be live, but it doesn't really sound it, with only occasional minor noises from the audience. Not too closely miked, the acoustic provides ample space, definition, and air for the instruments to breathe.

The other items, done in 2000 and presumably not recorded live, to my ears sound cleaner than the first track, with a slightly more-resonant ambience to the hall and a more-realistic presence all the way around. While there is not too much depth of field here, one can hardly complain about the clarity of the sonics. No disappointments.


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