The influence of Arcangelo Corelli on instrumental music of the early 18th century is difficult to overestimate. Not only was he a lodestone for his fellow Italian composers, but his music – particularly his 1714 Opus 6 of 12 concerti grossi – was the foundation of a frenzy for Italian music among the bon-ton middle classes of England, and it is on the back of this popularity that the likes of Handel (arriving fresh from Rome with a thorough grounding in the Italian style) made a considerable amount of money from the London cognoscenti.
Il Pomo d’Oro’s Saturday-evening concert at Milton Court was an exploration of the Italian string concerto, and contained not only No. 11 from Corelli’s Opus 6, but subsequent essays in the form from Handel and Francesco Durante, as well as a short sinfonia from Handel’s fellow German-speaking Italophile, Johann Hasse. The concert also featured the cellist Edgar Moreau, with whom Il Pomo d’Oro released an album of cello concerti in 2015. A couple of these (the D-major concerti by Giovanni Piatti and Luigi Boccherini) were re-visited, along with Giuseppe Tartini’s A-major concerto.
The ensemble used the minimum of forces to allow for both the concertino and ripieno groupings in the concerti: four violins, a single viola, two cellos, a double bass and a harpsichord, and produced a tightly-spun web of sound throughout, allowing tempo and dynamic to point up the changes in mood within the works. The Italian delivery was very much to the fore, and it was a pleasure to hear Handel’s F-major concerto grosso given such a sprightly and nuanced rendering (English performances can occasionally be a little stolid) in which the energetic work in the bass instruments at the end of the first movement was brought to the fore. Of the string concerti, though, it was the Durante G-minor that shone in terms of texture and harmonic invention. Deploying a reduced grouping of two violins and one of each of the other instruments, the ensemble wrung every last drop out of Durante’s unusual chromaticism, the violins indulging in little portamenti, the low strings giving us some splendidly rustic sawing, and the harpsichord shutting down to a lute stop for the central Largo (which contains a magical ‘blue note’ on the first violin towards its close).
The cello concerti were all given first-rate performances. Moreau is a consummate interpreter of the genre; there’s a no-nonsense approach here that delivers a warm, firm tone, but he is sensitive to idiom, decorating passages elegantly and with a natural skill. There’s no hint of the overwrought gestures that performers of Romantic concerti are sometimes wont to indulge in: every nuance is judged and executed with calm brilliance. Of the concerti played, Piatti’s D-major work caught the ear most, with its busy whoosh towards the close of the first movement, its sliding chromatic underlay of the solo line by the orchestral cello in the second movement and the driving rustic quality of the final movement.
The concert succeeded well in demonstrating the variations in the Italian string concerto across the 18th century, from Corelli’s 1714 benchmark through to the almost-classical Boccherini of 1770. It was, however, very much a concert for hard-core fans of the Baroque. True, the variations in style were apparent, but these days many Baroque ensembles like to leaven the continuo pudding with extra instruments – for example, a theorbo, an organ, a Baroque guitar – and an entire evening of strings and harpsichord playing roughly similar pieces, all with the same textural mix, became, eventually – notwithstanding the top-class performance – a little unrelentingly academic.