"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 14, 2013

The Concertos of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751)

The Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni is - like his countryman Boccherini - famous for a work he never wrote: the mawkish Adagio in G minor, which often is one of the few classical pieces people who never listen to classical music know. Well, it is a hoax, for it was composed in the 1950s by an Italian musicologist and researcher of Albinoni, whose shameful name I do not want to repeat. He falsely claimed to have discovered it in outline on an Albinoni manuscript from the bombed out Dresden State Library, but (of course) never produced any proof in the form of an underlying manuscript. Being a pastiche and therefore in fact almost a piece of light music, the Adagio became popular on TV and in pop music, not to forget film. It can't be erased from our cultural consciousness anymore, but remember one thing: it is a modern work that has nothing to do with the historical composer Albinoni!
So what are the achievements of the historical Albinoni?

Tomaso Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671, and achieved fame in many Italian cities but also in the rest of Europe - Bach knew and appreciated his music. Albinoni came from a wealthy family - his father was a maker of playing cards and Albinoni followed in this profession until middle age, when he became a full-time composer. He was thus a man of independent means, and never had to seek a position as musician in the church or at court. Perhaps that is the reason we know relatively little about his life. The instrument he played himself was the violin.

Albinoni wrote both operas and instrumental music - his vocal music was especially popular in Italy where he was in the first place seen as an opera composer - and the second category attracted in its printed editions great interest in northern Europe. When I saw that Albinoni was also a composer of opera and secular cantatas (he claimed himself to have written more than 80 operas), I thought: where is the revival? After all, thanks to amongst others Cecilia Bartoli, many of Vivaldi's so far forgotten operas are now available on CD. Then I saw to my regret that from Albinoni's fertile operatic output only seven works survive intact today, plus some loose arias from others. So Albinoni's posthumous reputation will of necessity remain influenced in favor of his instrumental work. But it is true that also his sonatas and concertos are imbued with a lyricism and breadth of phrase that are recognisably vocal in origin. By the way, Albinoni's wife - he married in 1705 - was an operatic soprano.

Albinoni's instrumental works were printed in nine collections, four of chamber music (Trio Sonatas Op 1, 1694; Balletti a Tre, Op 3, 1701; Trattenimenti Armonici Op. 6, 1711; Balletti e Sonate Op 8, 1722) and five for string ensemble (Sinfonie e Concerti a Cinque: Op 2, 1700; the rest all Concerti a Cinque: Op 5, 1707; Op 7, 1715; Op 9, 1722; Op 10, 1735/36). Besides these printed works of certain authenticity, we have many sonatas, sinfonias and concertos in manuscript and other printed editions not published by Albinoni himself, and here one has to thread carefully, for more than 25 works of those ascribed to Albinoni are on stylistic grounds deemed false by experts.

What is special about Albinoni's instrumental music? That is his pioneering work in the upcoming genre of the solo concerto - Albinoni came to maturity just after the first concertos were being written in Italy, and before his younger contemporary Vivaldi became active. The earliest concertos were in fact written in north Italy shortly before 1700, in an area that was the European center for the manufacture and playing of stringed instruments. The custom arose of using a principal violin distinct from the ordinary orchestral first violins and this led to the creation of the first true violin concertos. Alternative instruments extraneous to the string ensemble also followed in the solo position, and  so in the second decade of the 18th c. the oboe concerto was born. As wind instruments were more popular in Germany, it was the emigration of German wind players to the south that helped this development. What Albinoni is rightly famous for is being the composer of the first published oboe concertos: his Op. 7 of 1715 contains 8 concertos for single oboe, and 8 for two oboes. In Albinoni's oboe concertos the wind instrument functions, in its relationship to the strings, almost as a singer. At the same time they are concertos "with" rather than "for" oboes, in other words, the violin parts are also very important.

Generally speaking, the characteristics of Albinoni's concertos are: the fixed three movement plan of fast - slow - fast, which he helped establish; a strong influence from operatic music; a highly variable, unpredictable writing for the solo violin; transparent movement designs; a cool emotional climate punctuated by passionate interruptions; and a liking for counterpoint. All his works possess a great clarity.

Recommendations (all on period instruments):
  • Trio Sonatas Op. 1 by Parnassi Musici on CPO. The year 1694, when he turned 23, was an important year for Albinoni for it saw not only the performance of his first opera, but also the publication of his twelve trio sonatas Opus 1, which while formally under the influence of Corelli, show a firm command of form and technique, but above all, an own, unique style.
  • 12 Concerti a Cinque Op. 5 by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage, on Chandos. Albinoni at his most natural and vital, in perfectly proportioned concertos for string orchestra in five parts (the first violins divided into two groups). In his later concertos, he would be more expansive and varied, but never as fresh as here.
  • Complete Oboe Concertos (the single oboe concertos from Op 7 and Op 9) by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage, on Chandos (with Anthony Robson, oboe). Albinoni had a great skill in writing charming and fascinating melodies, and in weaving complicated patterns, but he also shows a marked feel for proportion and a wealth of imagination. Op 7 has a greater - almost Vivaldian - brevity, while the concertos in Op 9 are more richly elaborated. The jewel of the slow movements is Op 9 No 2, a long-breathed cantilena of the oboe set against an unchanging background of undulating violin semiquavers.
  • Double Oboe Concertos and String Concertos Vol I and II (from Op 7 and Op 9) by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage on Chandos, (with Anthony Robson and Catherine Latham, oboe). The other concertos from Op. 7 and 9. In the double concertos, the two oboes tend to stick closely together, often playing in unison or chains of thirds. In Op 7 they also frequently imitate the sound of the natural trumpet. There are also four string concertos of which Op 7.1 is in the style of an operatic overture. In contrast, the first work of Op 9 is a true violin concerto.