Sonnerie dir. Monica Huggett
Monica Huggett - violin, Emilia Benjamin - violin
Katherine McGillivray - viola, Alison McGillivray - cello
Sarah Groser - violone, Matthew Halls - harpsichord, organ
The three concertos for the flautino by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) have been controversial since they were first published in the Vivaldi complete works in the early 1950s. Until recently, the major talking point was their instrumentation: what was a flautino? The original editor of the concertos, the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, published them without comment for ottavino, the modern Italian word for the piccolo. But recorder enthusiasts soon took notice, pointing out that flautino is the diminutive of flauto, which in the Baroque period meant recorder rather than flute: thus a flautino was presumably a small size of recorder. Moreover, the keys of the concertos, C major and A minor, are much better suited to the recorder than to any size of Baroque flute. But which small recorder? Here the problems start, because the range of the solo part fits the sopranino recorder in f” well — except for an e” in a solo section of the Concerto in A minor, RV 445, and a few other notes in the ritornellos that go below the sopranino’s compass. Could the recorder have been a soprano in c” or d” (known in England as the fifth flute and sixth flute, respectively)? Possibly, but the solo part would lie extremely high on either of them. A Baroque piccolo (lowest note d”) might have been able to handle the range and the high tessitura, but the keys are more suitable for the recorder, and the piccolo does not seem to have been invented until the late 1730s—a little late for our concertos. As for the flageolet, a duct flute with six finger holes rather than the recorder’s eight, neither size (lowest notes d” or g”) would apparently have had the range or the compass. Most scholars therefore agreed, for the time being, that a flautino was probably a sopranino recorder and that Vivaldi, composing hastily, just slipped up in writing those notes below its compass.
A new wrinkle emerged in 1986, with the publication of Peter Ryom’s thematic catalogue of Vivaldi’s instrumental works. In his commentary on the autograph manuscript of the flautino concerto in A minor, RV 445 (not included on our recording), he notes that ‘on the first page of the manuscript, Vivaldi has inscribed the following words: L’Istromti alla 4a Bassa; the exact interpretation of this has not been determined’. Now, the phrase means ‘the instruments a fourth lower’, and Vivaldi wrote something similar on the manuscript of the flautino concerto: Gl’Istromti transporti alla 4a (‘the instruments transposed a fourth’). No such indication is found on the manuscript of the third flautino concerto, RV 444, but nevertheless, scholars began to sit up. Did Vivaldi really mean for all the instruments in these two concertos to be transposed down a fourth? Such a practice was common in Italian music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when its purpose was to facilitate the reading of music in the common clefs of the time; but what would be its purpose here? One scholar-performer, Winfried Michel, has taken Vivaldi at face value and published editions of all three concertos transposed down a fourth for soprano recorder, arguing that this takes full advantage of the stringed instruments by making use of the lowest string of the violins and viola and the lowest two notes of the cello.
The most thorough discussion of both flautino concerto puzzles has come from an Italian scholar, Federico Maria Sardelli, in a book on Vivaldi’s flute and recorder music published in 2001. Sardelli demonstrates that the flageolet lived in a different social world than the recorder, and that Vivaldi did specify it once under the name flasolet, so he clearly knew it and distinguished it from any kind of recorder. From his knowledge of Vivaldi’s general practice, Sardelli states that the composer often wrote notes in the ritornellos of his concertos that the solo instrument could not play, relying on the performer to leave them out or transpose them appropriately. He also believes that the one note below the compass of the sopranino recorder in a solo section was an oversight, and he points out several instances in sequential passage work in which Vivaldi deliberately avoided going below f”. Thus Sardelli has no doubt that for Vivaldi, flautino meant small recorder and normally a sopranino. Again drawing on Vivaldi’s practice, Sardelli notes that by ‘Gl’istromenti’ the composer meant not all the instruments, but only the orchestra parts. The concept of writing the recorder part in another key from the orchestra, or in other words treating it as a transposing instrument, was common in England, where the notation assumed that the player was reading a part as if it were intended for an alto recorder. (This concept is found, for example, in the manuscript of the Sammartini concerto performed on our recording, in which the soprano recorder part is notated a fourth higher than the orchestra.) In conclusion, Vivaldi intended RV 443 and 445 for the soprano recorder—at least, in one particular performance—and RV 444 for the sopranino recorder. The present recording follows these intentions. Pamela Thorby had in fact already been playing RV 443 down a fourth on the soprano recorder for several years before she discovered the evidence outlined above. She feels that in doing so the violins have a more fluent range, and the presence of more open strings makes the sound of the ensemble richer.
In the flautino concertos, and even more so in the C-minor recorder concerto also performed here, Vivaldi invented a new virtuoso language for the instrument, unprecedented in the work of his contemporaries: the English composers who wrote Vivaldian concerts (Babell, Baston and Woodcock) wrote largely stepwise passage work of little difficulty. In Vivaldi, however, the whirlwind arpeggios, leaps and pedal tones are modelled on the violin’s string-crossing technique. Passing trills are plentiful, and the frequent slurred groupings are unlike anything found before in woodwind history, in which virtually all notes had been separately tongued. If there remains any doubt that the recorder was (and is) a serious musical instrument, these concertos should put paid to it. Yet they are not just technical exercises, but full of surprise and delight.
In RV 444 the ritornello sections of the fast movements are cut to a minimum, allowing the solo instrument full scope in the relatively extended solo sections. In the slow movement in the relative minor (A minor), the soloist is given an elaborately ornamented melody line containing some of the same devices as the fast movements (trills, rapid scales and triplets) over pizzicato semiquavers in the strings. RV 443 has a more striking melodic profile and the passage work is at least as brilliant. Nevertheless, the most memorable movement is perhaps the slow one, marked merely Largo, but in fact a brilliantly and elaborately ornamented Siciliano in the unexpected key of E minor (relative minor of the dominant). David Lasocki