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Forgotten Treasures, Vol 11: Mandolin concertos - Torge / Willens

Forgotten Treasures, Vol 11: Mandolin concertos - Torge / Willens

Ars Produktion  ARS 38 092

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Emanuele Barbella: Concerto in D major for Mandolin
Giovanni Francesco Giuliani: Concerto in F major for Mandolin
Anon. (Paisiello?): Concerto in E flat major for Mandolin
Giovanni Hoffmann: Concerto in D major for Mandolin

Anna Torge, mandolin
Kölner Akademie
Michael Alexander Willens

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 15, 2015

As a result of new insight in and advantages of historically informed performances, we have seen many period ensembles establishing themselves over the past decades or so. There is no longer a shortage of such bands and nowadays one needs to be special in order to distinguish oneself amongst the rest to become one of the best. With the BIS Mozart/Brautigam piano concertos Michael Alexander Willens and his Koelner Akademie have been able to put themselves prominently on the map.

A closer look at Willens’ discography reveals a whole range of attractive compositions crafted by composers who had the unfortunate luck to live in the shadow of the Great Masters. A treasure trove of alternatives for the standard repertoire? Yes, if carefully selected and well played.

Willens, who studied double bass and direction at the Julliard School of Music - in those day still a ‘a bastion of modern, machine-tooled virtuosity’- has, as far as I know, always been on the lookout for forgotten repertoire seeking out ‘gems’ amongst ‘sub-top’ composers, meriting a better fate. And together with the enterprising label ‘ARS Produktion’ he has concocted a generous cocktail of forgotten treasures, which could also have been named ‘Hidden Gems’.

Each volume is either devoted to a composer : Vols. 4 (Wilms), 5 (Romberg) and 8 (Neukom), or to a particular instrument which, at each given period in time, used to enjoy solo status equal to the violin and the keyboard. So far 11 volumes have seen the light. Three of them received rave reviews from Geohominid : Vols. 3 (Double Bass), 6 (Horn) and 10 (Harp), to which I’m happy to associate myself with.

This latest, 11th installment is devoted to the mandolin. No Vivaldi here, but lesser known, equally joyous pieces by Emanuele Barbella (Napoli), Giovanni Francesco Giuliani (Livorno), Anonymus (Giovanni Paisiello?) and Giovanni Hoffmann (probably of Austrian descent *); all of them, like Vivaldi, Italian, or in the case of Hoffmann ‘would be’ Italian composers. Not surprisingly so. Although the mandolin did, indeed, become an instrument of choice in many countries all over the world, even to the point that Europe counted a large number of ‘mandolin only’ orchestras, its origins firmly lie in Italy (Napoli, Roma, Milano).

*) Gerber’s Dictionary of Musicians, published in 1812 or 1814, lists Giovanni Hoffman as “an obscure contemporary musician, likely from Vienna, and a virtuoso on the mandolin.” Other sources refer to Johann Hoffmann with varying but similar dates of birth and death.

Listening to several volumes (to which I intend to come back later individually) and reading the respective liner notes, I noted that the orchestra’s complement is different each time. Not only varying according to the compositional requirements, but also as far as the individual members of the various sections are concerned. It is common practice to replace someone in accordance with his or her availability and borrow additional talent from elsewhere. But this is not the point I want to make. It is the responsibility of any conductor worth his salt to maintain orchestral coherence, balance and quality of sound and, irrespective of the actual complement, a recognizable ‘own’ character and style. In this respect Michael Willens deserves full credits for being able to do so. Moreover, the adage ‘an orchestra is as good as its Chef’ is certainly valid here.

As for the concertos chosen, they have clearly been written to provide material for mandolin virtuosi, as well as to please the audience. No attempt to innovate, but rather to produce convenient melody and brilliant passage work.

Although, in comparison with Maestro Vivaldi’s oeuvre in this field, none of the composers have to be ashamed of the quality of their own compositions, there are some differences. The liner notes suggest that Giovanni Paissiello has a Parisian flavour (the manuscript surfaced in Paris) and that Hoffmann has a more Viennese colour. As far as I’m concerned, this is mainly food for scholars. In those days Italian style was dominant in Europe and to a casual listener all four sound mostly Italian. In the case of Hoffmann, apparently being a confirmed virtuoso himself, it is obvious that his concerto has primarily served to show his ability as a mandolino player, while maintaining a high degree of listening pleasure. Both Giuliani and Hoffmann have a more elaborate accompaniment with horns and hoboes

The Kölner Akademie is a flexible ensemble performing a repertoire that spans more than 4 centuries, feeling themselves equally at home with modern as well as period instruments. For these concerti they use, as might have been expected, period instruments and an orchestral compliment best suited to the music. The result is a natural and perfect balance between orchestra and soloist, realistically captured by the ARS Produktion engineers, thus recreating the intimate ambiance of 'the time'.

Anna Torge, specialist on historical mandolins, has a very impressive bio, winning prestigious prizes and playing with equally prestigious orchestras and conductors, but the real proof of the pudding lies in the eating. I was not disappointed. She plays with an airy elegance, coping with difficulties in such a way that the casual listener does not even become aware of them.

All in all a most rewarding programme for an uplifting listening experience. Wholeheartedly recommended as a sure ‘mind cleanser’ after too much heavy handed music of composers the names of which you may want to fill in yourself!

Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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