A Musician’s Musician: The Corelli Trio on Recording Corelli
Their first two recordings were devoted to violin sonatas of Handel and Mattheson. For their third effort, the members of Denmark’s Corelli Trio turn to the music of their namesake, recording the 12 sonatas of op. 5 (1700), works that changed the face of Baroque music. I asked the members of Corelli Trio—Baroque violinist Elisabeth Zeuthen Schneider, organist Ulrik Spang-Hanssen, and lutenist Viggo Mangor—about the paths that brought them together and their experiences bringing Corelli’s music to life.
Q: How did the three of you meet and decide to work together as a trio?
Viggo: In all the epic novels and films, destiny usually brings the right people together at the right time. In our case, the circumstances were less spectacular. Ulrik and I went to high school together and my first recollection of him was when he approached me and asked if he could hide his illegally modified old scooter in my parents’ garden shed. I thought that was an excellent idea and then everything went on from there. After high school, we were both admitted into different academies of music, and we later joined forces with Elisabeth as teachers at various Royal Academies of Music (I took a degree in musicology at the University of Copenhagen as well). Our mutual interest in Baroque music slowly developed into more formalized work, and the Corelli Trio formed around 1998.
Elisabeth: My first real encounter with Viggo was in a recording session. I had the very ambitious idea to record Bach’s music for solo violin, and I made a trial recording with Viggo as a producer. I was intrigued and got very curious about Viggo’s musical suggestions. I must have been a little reluctant to give in; he gave me his recording of Silvius Leopold Weiss’s lute music. After listening a very short time to his playing, I knew that Viggo was a master. He introduced me to Ulrik, who also is a master, but with a very different personality. Between them, they are a powerful match! They mock me and tease me, but above all they respect and support me, which, I think, comes across in our recordings.
Q: What are your individual backgrounds with regard to historical performance, and how do your individual experiences influence your group approach to performing early music?
Viggo: Ulrik studied the organ and I studied the lute both in Denmark and abroad. Baroque music forms a large part of the repertoire for both instruments, so a profound curiosity and interest in performance practice is much more common with those instruments than with many others. I think we always take care not to be governed by rules, but by the emotional content of the music.
Elisabeth: When I was seven years old, my father met an eminent astrophysicist who happened to be the number-one viola da gamba player in Denmark. He suggested that I should learn to play the gamba and study with a young pupil of his. She was the daughter of a Hungarian Kodály-trained pedagog, and without really realizing it, my music studies began in the best possible way, singing canons while accompanying myself on the gamba and playing early Renaissance tunes. I have profound memories of her playing on the gamba on rainy summer days in the country. This deep, simple, and eloquent sound remains in my ears. After a year or two she left to study with August Wenzinger at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, and I got a more strict and severe teacher, a very eccentric man. I mostly remember that I was asked to take care of his capricious goat, Dolores, and his fierce cockatoo during summer months. I eventually got a violin, and it was easier to follow that trend in more conventional schooling, but my early memories are bound up in early music.
Ulrik: It could also be mentioned that Viggo and I both met Jesper Bøje Christensen, a Dane who is a very influential professor at the Schola Cantorum, in very different circumstances. He is extremely well read and is a master in seeing the third side of the coin.
Q: For me, one of the most wonderful facets of the development of the modern historical performance movement is the lack of established orthodoxy—a unified and accepted code of performance that can stifle innovation and exploration. How does that freedom help or hinder your relationship with each other and with the music you perform?
Ulrik: The eminent American musicologist David Fuller said it very well in one of the most sophisticated articles yet to be published about the subject,
The Performer as Composer
: “Draw near and watch the rules collapse.” The more of the old treatises you read, the more you become aware of the fact that there are rules, yes, but each and every author gives them his own twist and states numerous exceptions, which are in fact very often more interesting than the rules. Historically informed performance is not about rules. It is about new colors, new possibilities.
Viggo: For me, musical ideas in any era emerge because influential performers introduce them, and their way of playing then inspires teachers and authors to describe them, and a wider range of performers to adopt them. So I strongly believe that you should encourage the study of performance practice and use it as a source of profound inspiration, thus giving the music of the past a chance to speak to us on its own terms.
Elisabeth: Living a busy life as a “modern” violinist (violinists never lack wonderful repertoire to explore), I also felt the need to play Bach and his contemporaries. I often had an underlying feeling of uneasiness in places—“Why does this not feel right?” Getting to know Ulrik and Viggo was a revelation: “The rules” yielded to unexpected freedom and ease. The Baroque violin itself just feels right. My studies with the Baroque violinist Stanley Ritchie, who teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, were formative. At that time I did not play the Baroque violin, and he managed to convey important information and allow me freedom. I approach playing this music like a singer. The guys have nicknamed me “the diva,” which is quite ironic because I am not one at all! However, the violin parts I get to play are really great—fit for a diva.
Q: What is it about Corelli that drew all of you to this project—after all, you named your group after him—after having first recorded Mattheson and Handel?
Ulrik: His contemporaries regarded Corelli as the greatest composer of all. We agree. He was one of the first to put several different emotions and shadings in the same movement, which until then was not commonly done. That is precisely the reason his music is more difficult to play. So we did the two Germans as a sort of warm-up, which of course does not say anything pejorative about their works—they’re just more straightforward to handle.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the creativity of your continuo playing. Describe your approach to continuo teamwork and some of the thought behind your instrument choices.
Ulrik: The choice of continuo instruments is only one of many decisions left to the players in this music. We chose organ and archlute because it was a very popular combination at the time—it may not have been what Corelli primarily had in mind, but I’m completely sure that he would not have raised an eyebrow. Furthermore, those instruments have the distinct advantage that we can actually play them. I’m not much good on a harpsichord. It doesn’t feel right under my fingers, and I’ve never heard Viggo play the cello. Continuo playing for us is very much a question of swing, so in distributing the roles, we are always very conscious about where the motor is. One of the great things about this combination is that it’s so versatile—both can play bass and both can play chords.
Viggo: When playing basso continuo, it is important for us to be able to see this music not from the top downward but from the bass upward. It is also interesting to note that in Baroque music, good accompanists do not follow the soloist, but, in most cases, they take the lead and the soloist must follow. It’s very much the opposite of what most modern players do. It may sound strange to many musicians today, but give it a try and you will be surprised to find out how well it works.
Q: Why do you think Corelli’s music has been overshadowed by that of his contemporaries in the early-music revival movement?
Ulrik : During Corelli’s lifetime and in the immediate generations that followed, you would be hard-placed to name any composers who were not influenced by him to some extent, so it’s not so strange that some of them may have been writing more to the public taste than he did. I think Corelli is very much a musician’s musician, not to mention one who published so few compositions, exclusively for string instruments at that.
Q: By 1700, the stylistic differences between church and chamber sonata had significantly eroded. Describe some of the choices you made to try to bring out the differing affects of the two genres, as well as your approach to choosing which of the sources for embellished slow movements you decided to perform.
Ulrik: We chose, of course, as almost everybody does, the embellishments thought to be by Corelli himself for the church sonatas; for the chamber sonatas we supplied our own. Viggo is a master in this style—I’m the Handel man of the group. We didn’t make explicit choices concerning the differences between the two genres; they kind of emerged as we worked. It’s in there somehow.
Viggo: By listening to the church sonatas as well as the chamber sonatas, we feel that there is a distinct difference between their emotional contents as well as between their harmonic and melodic structure. I think that the fact that we have both the plain and the ornamented versions of the church sonatas in Corelli’s own hand provides us with a unique tool for determining what the composer felt would enrich the musical experience. I believe that Corelli’s embellishments have not only a melodic component, but also expand the harmony, and can thus both inspire the basso continuo as well as give clues to how dramatically the melodic phrases are to be played.
Q: Elisabeth, how does your experience with playing Baroque music inform your approach to later repertoire? What are some of your challenges when faced with the rhetorical demands of early music and the wild, capricious nature of Italian Baroque music in particular?
Elisabeth: There is a big difference in technique between the Baroque and modern violin. I am fascinated by all the information I can find about the period and the composers’ lives. There are so many factors that decide a performance of any piece of music. My other recordings include Swedish Romantic music, Schumann’s complete sonatas, and modern Danish music. I sense the differences of light and shade where the composer lives or lived, whether it is sunny Southern skies or the North where we live, with dark winter days and light nights in the summer. There is a great distance there. My father was a marine biologist, and as a child I spent time in Naples and the island of Ischia. I have memories of the Italian temperament and language, and the sound of Italians going about their daily work, singing all the while in cool, vaulted stone rooms and cellars.
In his concerti grossi, Corelli incorporated big contrasts of sound and volume. His orchestra consisted of about 35–80 players for day-to-day performances and up to 150 players for grand occasions, and the difference between tutti and solo must have been massive. We know that he revised his orchestral music and wrote dynamics from
which was a way to notate long crescendi and diminuendi. I have heard that Corelli demanded that his orchestral string players should be able to hold a long note in one bow stroke in
for a very long time. The Italians often had very long bows, “sonata-bows,” indicating that they where fond of singing on the violin. Gut violin strings are soft, and there is a big possibility of changing the contact point of the bow on the string. If you dig in with the bow close to the bridge with a lot of bow pressure, wanting a strong, loud, and almost strident super-expressive note, the only way to “rinse the sound” (avoiding a terrible scratch) is to apply vibrato, to catch up the very tense vibration of the string. In his 1751 treatise
The Art of Playing the Violin
, Corelli’s violin student Francesco Geminiani advises that you also vibrate on short notes. In contrast, you can play an extremely quiet, whispered sound by bowing way up the fingerboard. This is, I believe, imitating what singers always have been doing with their vocal cords. There are accounts of the famous castrato Farinelli being able to make endlessly long crescendi, decrescendo, and coloraturas in one breath, and the public would die for it. This is what is called
on stringed instruments. The great 20th-century violinist Joseph Gingold was a master of this technique.
Pulse and rhythm has been another great issue for me. I am still working on my placement of the beat, not to be too early, and to get the swing of the ornaments just right. The idea of trying to get as much dynamic variety and expression in the performance originated from these impressions and sources of information.
Q: You self-produced this recording. What were some of the joys and difficulties you encountered with this process?
Viggo: In this case I could not join the recording session as an external pair of ears. During sessions, we spent a lot of time listening to and discussing takes in order to arrive at the musical results we wanted, but since we could not check every detail, we had to repair bits here and there in later sessions. I always consider myself a performer, even when working as a producer, so I challenge other musicians with regard to interpretation instead of just correcting mistakes. In my experience, mistakes are often the result of musical problems not having been solved beforehand.
Q: Where do you want to go from here? What has this recording taught you and inspired you to do next?
Ulrik: Veracini, Tartini, or Leclair may be on the list for coming projects. We also hope to get more opportunities to perform outside Denmark! .
12 Violin Sonatas,
BRIDGE 9371 (2 CDs: 125:34)