Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The “Bad Old Days” of Baroque Chamber Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

Recently, my attention to the Legendary Treasures series of recordings released on the DOREMI label led to their release of performances by the violinist Julian Olevsky. This label has been producing a series of albums of the recordings that Olevsky made, the most recent of which (the sixth) consists of performances of “violin sonatas” by George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. The scare quotes on this album are there to acknowledge that very few of the selections were actually composed for violin and keyboard accompaniment.

Furthermore, uncertainty about the content is paralleled by uncertainty about this album’s availability. The Amazon.com Web page lists this item as “Currently Unavailable,” giving the release date as January 1, 2025 (which is probably Amazon’s rather crude way of saying “we really don’t know”). Once again, salvation from Amazon ineptitude has been provided by Presto Classical, which gives the release date as May 10, 2019 and can provide the recording either through downloads or as an album of three CDs. Furthermore, it provides a particularly informative track listing, which identifies which of the sonatas were actually written for violin. The only significant lacuna is a failure to mention that the Scarlatti sonatas are actually keyboard sonatas with an added violin part provided by Lionel Salter.

This account of the album content should explain the scare quotes in the title. The Handel and Scarlatti selections were originally recorded for Westminster vinyls, both recorded in 1955 and released separately. At both of the sessions Olevsky was accompanied at the harpsichord by Fernando Valenti (one of the best interpreters of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas in his day). The Handel sonatas include continuo support from cellist Martin Ormandy. There is also a bonus track of two short pieces by Fritz Kreisler separated by the briefest of pauses, taken from a third Westminster album. On this track Olevsky is accompanied at the piano by Wolfgang Rose.

While the Presto account of the Handel sonatas is more accurate than the track listing in the album booklet, it occasionally mixes up the sonatas for flute with those for recorder. It also does not indicate which of the HWV numbers have either an “a” or “b” suffix, nor does it account for which of the entries in the catalog are likely to be spurious. Those who want a more accurate description of just what Olevsky took to be the fifteen Opus 1 sonatas would do well to consult the List of compositions by George Frideric Handel Web page on Wikipedia.

To be fair, many readers probably will not care about shortcomings of historical fidelity. The more significant question involves whether or not Olevsky’s performances are convincing, merely satisfactory, or worse. I would say that just about everything in this collection fits comfortably in that middle category. However, I should probably confess that the Handel sonatas I know best are those for wind instruments; and, as a result, Olevsky’s approaches so such pieces tend to make me cringe a bit, particularly when he fails to provide the more spirited rhetoric one can expect from a first-rate recorder player.

In other words Handel and Scarlatti are there only to provide a platform on which Olevsky can demonstrate his mastery of the technique he acquired through his studies during the first half of the twentieth century. The good news is that he is not as pretentious on this turf as Yehudi Menuhin tended to be. On the other hand the booklet introduction by Jack Silver puts Olevsky in a league with Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh. It would be fair to say that both of these musicians tended to confine their pre-Classical performances to what might be called “popular” concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach; and I suspect that, were Bach to return to earth, he would appreciate how both of them approached his music. Handel, on the other hand, would probably have a grumpier reaction to Olevsky’s efforts.

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