I have Robert Aubry Davis to thank for introducing me to the music of Pietro Locatelli. Several months ago he went on a “Locatelli binge” on his Baroque and Beyond program on Sirius XM satellite radio. He had clearly been taken in by the flamboyant virtuoso demands of Locatelli’s music, and I found myself hooked just as readily. Locatelli is about seventeen years younger than that better-known violin virtuoso, Antonio Vivaldi. However, when compared with Vivaldi, whose travels beyond Venice were relatively sparse, Locatelli stands out as a world (or at least European, which was pretty much the same thing in his day) traveler.
As a result, it may make more sense to think of Locatelli as a predecessor of Niccolò Paganini, rather than a successor of Vivaldi. Both had prodigious talent. More importantly, however, both knew how to turn that talent into a revenue stream as a “free agent,” attaining a lifestyle of concertizing that was comfortable, if not on the threshold of luxurious. It should therefore be no surprise that Locatelli was one of Paganini’s major influences.
All this should provide context for the release at the end of this past October of a Complete Edition box of 21 CDs from Brilliant Classics devoted to Locatelli. One has to be a bit liberal with the concept of completeness where Locatelli is concerned, because much of his work has been lost. His opus number count runs only to nine and covers the period from 1721 to 1762. However, the Opus 9 collection of six concerti grossi has been lost and is therefore absent from the Brilliant collection. On the other hand all four of the pieces without an opus number are included. These are a G minor violin sonata, two violin concertos, one in A major and one in E major, and an F minor “Sinfonia funebre” in five movements that Locatelli composed for the funeral of his wife, which was held in Rome.
The Brilliant recording project seems to have been supervised by violinist Igor Ruhadze, who leads the Ensemble Violini Capricciosi. The soloist for the twelve Opus 2 flute sonatas is Jed Wentz, who leads the Musica ad Rhenum ensemble. There is also a “bonus disc” of this group performing the six Opus 5 trio sonatas led by Wentz on flute rather than Ruhadze on violin.
Locatelli may not have been as prolific as Vivaldi, but his music is definitely engaging. He seems to have had a particular love of suspensions, which make many of his harmonic progressions sound a bit less routine than those of Vivaldi. Also, every now and then he slips in a decidedly unexpected modulation, probably to see if the ensemble he was playing with at the time was paying attention.
However, with all due respect to Wentz’ polished performances, this collection is primarily about solo violin virtuosity. It is thus more than a little impressive how many rabbits keep popping out of the hat over the course of eighteen CDs. This is not to recommend listening to the entire collection in a single binge session, but there is strong evidence that Locatelli was always seeking out new tricks to impress others with how talented he was. The impression definitely registered with Paganini, since the first capriccio in his Opus 1 collection is a clear appropriation of one of the notated cadenzas in Locatelli’s Opus 3 collection of twelve violin concertos. Entitled L’Arte del Violino (the art of the violin), this publication accompanied the twelve concertos with 24 cadenzas (called “Capprici”), one for each of the outer movements of each of the three-movement concertos.
Presumably those notated cadenzas involved post hoc documentation of spontaneous improvisations. This raises one final virtue of the recordings in this collection. The musicians may be playing from notated parts, but there is always a sense of spontaneity in their performances. This is particularly evident in Ruhadze’s solo work, but his spirit always seem to diffuse into all of his supporting players.