Now overshadowed by the twin pillars of Bach and Handel, it’s difficult today to appreciate the renown enjoyed by Arcangelo Corelli in his own time. He was, however, the artistic locus on which much of Baroque instrumental music converged. Perhaps more than any other composer, he pointed the way in how to write the solo sonata, the trio sonata, and the concerto grosso. Without his example, music in the late 17th and early 18th century might have been very different.
Corelli was a rare breed for his day. He was an Italian composer who, so far as we know, never wrote a note of vocal music. Instead, he focused on the violin, and indeed it’s been said that most schools of violin playing begin with Corelli. Further, in a time that reveled in exuberant showmanship, his was the musicianship of restraint. Rarely did he engage in the pyrotechnics of, say, Pietro Locatelli. His violin works never venture into the higher registers, and his scales and arpeggios seem less showy and more subsumed into musical substance. Finally, in a time when composers were expected to churn out music on demand, Corelli lavished his attention on a small but exquisitely crafted set of works in a handful of forms—his entire reputation rests on a mere six opus numbers.
But more than most composers, what Corelli lacks in quantity is more than compensated for in quality. There’s a sinuous and cool perfection to his music that excited the admiration of his peers. It’s no accident that Handel’s own concerto grosso masterpieces were closely modeled on Corelli’s example.
Brilliant Classics’ 10 CD set offers smooth and spirited original instrument performances. Intonation is flawless, vibrato is sparing and judicious. While some might miss the meatier heft of modern instruments, the lean transparency of these performances aptly suit Corelli. The recorded sound is clear and luminous. Continuo playing is supplied variously by harpsichord, organ, archlute, theorbo, and guitar.
This is listener-friendly music. Corelli never taxes the patience of his listeners. Throughout the entire set, only three movements exceed four minutes. So if you don’t care for a particular selection, don’t worry, another will be along anon. Always the music unfolds with refinement and grace.
In short, Corelli holds up well as a progenitor of all we now hold dear about late baroque music. Those who came after scaled heights first mapped by him. As the 12th century scholar John of Salisbury wrote: “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”