The Ospedale della Pietà in Venice is best known for its music school that employed Antonio Vivaldi in a variety of different capacities between 1703 and 1740. Much of Vivaldi’s instrumental music (and his sacred vocal music) was both composed and performed there; but, because Vivaldi was originally appointed as a violin teacher, most of that music features virtuoso solo and ensemble work for strings. Since the Pietà was also an orphanage, most, if not all, of Vivaldi’s students and performers of his work were orphans, all female.
In a recent harmonia mundi recording entitled Concerto – Venice: The Golden Age, released this past August, the booklet notes by Bernhard Schrammek, translated into English by Charles Johnston, single out one particularly fascinating orphan:
Some of the surviving music manuscripts from the Pietà feature the names of the participants, with the aid of which the biographies of a fair number of inmates can be rescued from anonymity. One of the more striking is that of an instrumentalist designated as ‘Pellegrina’, who was taken into the orphanage ‘wrapped in rags’ at the age of eight days and stayed there all her life. Until shortly before her death at the age of seventy-seven she was still playing the oboe, the violin and the double bass regularly.
Pellegrina was fortunate to have both a full-time oboe teacher at the Pietà (Schrammek lists three of them), as well as such a skilled composer as Vivaldi, whose catalog includes twenty oboe concertos, six of which were printed in his lifetime.
Vivaldi’s inspiration, however, extended beyond the walls of the Pietà. Johann Sebastian Bach rearranged many of Vivaldi’s concertos for different instrumentations, including nine (BWV 972–980) for solo keyboard (probably harpsichord or clavichord). Then there was Alessandro Marcello, whose 1717 oboe concerto in D minor may well have been inspired by a concerto that Vivaldi had composed for Pellegrina and, in turn, inspired another of Bach’s arrangements for solo keyboard (BWV 981 in C minor). It is that interest in the oboe (if not in Pellegrina’s playing) that provides the basis for the selections on the new harmonia mundi album, providing a showcase for Xenia Löffler, oboist with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.
Of the eight selections on this recording, six feature at least one oboe; and four are concertos by Vivaldi. Marcello’s D minor concerto is also included, along with a sinfonia in D major by Giovanni Porta, one of Vivaldi’s colleagues at the Pietà, and an overture for strings by Carlo Tessarini, who was probably influenced by Vivaldi during his time in Venice. In addition the opening selection is a “Quasi-Pasticcio,” composed by Uri Rom in 2013 but drawing upon both Vivaldi and Tessarini for models and sources. This concerto was written on a commission from the Akademie für Alte Musik and is dedicated to Löffler.
I have to say that I approached this recording with a generous amount of useful listening experience. My home town of San Francisco provides an impressive share of opportunities to listen to historically-informed performances of music composed before 1750 performed on period instruments. Only this past July did I enjoy a concert including Marcello’s concerto featuring Debra Nagy playing as soloist with the American Bach Soloists conducted by Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas. Not only am I very much at ease with the eighteenth-century sonorities; but also I am a sucker for music composed for the baroque oboe.
As a result I was easily drawn into Löffler’s smooth and confident style without needing any more persuasive encouragement than past experience had already provided. There is a lightness to her style that always seems to find the sweet spot between the assertiveness of a shepherd’s pipe and the more elevated setting of an ensemble of deft and refined string players. The ensemble is led from the Concertmaster’s chair by Georg Kallweit with the same brisk energy that he brought to the recorded performance of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Wq 183/1 symphony in D major on the harmonia mundi recording released this past February. The overall result is a delightful account of virtuoso performances of Venetian music from the eighteenth century in which each composition shines with its own unique rhetorical character.