CD Review: Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and I Fiori Musicali Play Corelli

Archangelo Corelli – a titanic figure in the history and development of violin-playing. With blazing eyes and breathtaking technique, he catapulted the playing standards of both the instrument and its musical literature to towering heights for his day. Yet, like many modern violinists today, I scarcely knew of Corelli and his impact prior to the latter half of last year when I purchased my Baroque bow. Having only been exposed to the modern violin routine of high emphasis on Bruch, Mendelsohn, and Sarasate, I did not know what repertoire to begin with until my voice teacher – a musicologist with graduate studies from University of Chicago – suggested the Corelli sonatas. I immediately discovered a harmonic and virtuosic wealth rivaling the most difficult of Romantic showpieces, instantly falling in love with their intricately, signature Italian Baroque strains. Incidentally, when searching for quality recordings of my newfound favorite pieces, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the recorder community was also infatuated with Corelli’s works, yet none of these recorder-transcribed renditions captured my violinist/recorder player heart as intensely as the outstanding recording featuring Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and I Fiori Musicali.

Prior to me hearing this recording, I had heard several recordings of Corelli on the recorder and had consequently developed the initial impression that Corelli’s sonatas sounded inferior and watered-down on recorder. I could not have been more mistaken. In this stunning, must-hear CD, Fiorentino exquisitely renders these hallmark violin sonatas in the true spirit of the original violin. No longer are they drastically watered down to fit conform to what recorder players would consider the technical limitations of the instrument. My previous prejudices had been based upon the often-performed Pez transcriptions of the piece, which greatly water down Corelli’s original brilliancy and greatly underestimate the recorder’s violin-like potential. Fiorentino’s rendition – a conglomerate transcription from both Pez and Corelli’s original – retained most of the glamor of the violin original save for minor tweaking due to register and ornamentation issues between instruments. More plainly, while the pieces are adapted for recorder and contain recorder-appropriate ornamentation, the “heart and soul” brilliance of the violin original – thrilling sixteenth note runs and dramatic leaps – are retained.

Throughout the entire duration of the recording, I seriously felt I was listening to a master Baroque violinist performing rather than a recorder player. Fiorentino’s brilliant and crisp articulation accurately captured all the essence of Baroque bowing and its execution across violin strings, while her eloquent, flowing cantabile lines literally breathed life into the often breath-devoid execution of violinists. I was most charmed by the occasional and tasteful usage of breath vibrato –often considered “taboo” in the world of recorder-playing — which endowed a more violin-like execution upon the frequent long notes. Extreme virtuosity – another key feature of all masterful violin-playing – was also omnipresent. Fiorentino never hestitated to push the capabilities of the instrument in her successful quest to accurately mirror the original violin, drawing countless reactions of amazement from my violin/recorder mind. Extreme high notes beyond the traditional range of the alto recorder were always supported with paramount breath control, never demonstrating any signs of strain or scratchiness that could often result on such notes from inferior muscle and breath control. For the finishing touches, the ensemble’s strong continuo section – complete with harpsichord, organ, bassoon, and theorbo – provided an equally strong bass which deeply accented Corelli’s intricate melodies and greatly brought out the rich harmonies which continuously subtext their both technically thrilling and delicate strains.

Of special note was Fiorentino’s exquisite rendition of the final sonata, the haunting “La Folia.” The most famous of the whole set, this highly virtuosic sonata – whose theme was the most revered in the Renaissance and Baroque – is more well-known in today’s classical music world via the romanticized transcriptions of Suzuki and Kreisler. Having experienced frustration at this fact when I myself was learning the original, hearing Fiorentino’s rendition of the original was most refreshing. Like the rest of the sonatas on this recording, her interpretation was stunningly faithful to the original violin, yet Fiorentino pushed the excellency of this interpretation even further by more prominently sounding like a violinist even more so than on any of the sonatas on this CD. Her brilliant and crisp articulation during the hair-raising sixteenth note runs – especially during the often recorder-unfriendly leaps – absolutely wowed me, sounding alarmingly reminiscent of string crossings and minute, unbelievably strokes that result from masterful use of a Baroque bow. By the time this recorded performance was commenced, I was most convinced that Fiorentino was more violinist than my modern violin colleagues who attempt this piece and that modern violinists could also learn from her example how to accurately render this great yet often neglected violin masterpiece in the true intentions of its great creator.

In general, I walked away from this thrilling sonic experience firmly and enthusiastically convinced not only that recorder players could accurately emulate violinists in pieces originally conceived for the instrument of the latter, but also more prominently convinced that violin and recorder were not incompatible as many had told me. Rather, both instruments are perfect complements to each other, with the understanding of both crucial towards a truly and historically accurate performance of Baroque music. As both a serious historically-informed violinist and recorder player who understands the nuances of both instruments and Corelli’s music, I wholeheartedly give my approval to the stunning recording mentioned in this review. Brava once again, Maria!

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