PHILIPS HAS brought out an interesting pair of complementary two-disc sets in its "Living Baroque" series: Corelli's 12 Violin Sonatas, Op. 5, played by Arthur Grumiaux, with harpsichordist Riccardo Castagnone (6768.178), and Geminiani's arrangements of these same sonatas as concerti grossi, played by I Musici (6768.179; cassettes 7699.156).
These excellent performances are recommended, either separately or together, without reservation. And the appearance of these sets in tandem calls attention to the 12 sonatas as works which were probably revised, transcribed, embellished and generally gone over by more of the composer's contemporaries and near-contemporaries than any other music of that period.
This is pointed up by reference to the only other current recording of the sonatas, by Eduard Melkus on DG's Archiv label (2533.132 and 2533.133), a tour de force of musical scholarship, even if the performances themselves may not appeal to everyone as directly as Grumiaux's surely will.
Melkus, with the aid of some outstanding scholars, dug into all available sources and came up with embellished versions of the various sonatas, or in some cases individual movements, by such musicians as Tartini, Cateni, Valentini, Geminiani (who edited the sonatas, in addition to arranging them as concertos) and Matthew Dubourg. (Geminiani was himself a pupil of Corelli, and Dubourg was his own pupil, not a composer but a prominent violinist, whose embellishments of various composers' works were so fussy that Handel made fun of him in public.)
All of these men's versions are represented in part in Melkus's set. He plays on gut strings with a Baroque bow, and uses harpsichord, organ, cello and/or lute as continuo in the various sonatas. No. 7 is actually performed by him with the Capella Academica Wien in Geminiani's concerto arrangement. Grumiaux plays all 12 sonatas with harpsichord alone and in a somewhat straighter vein, offsetting Melkus's adventurousness with a more expansive approach that allows the melodies to sing more sweetly -- and this is surely the basic explanation of the initial popularity of these works.
Both recordings of the sonatas are enjoyable, though. In Melkus', the way the cello sometimes imitates the violin's line, or the surprisingly cheery effect made by the organ in place of the harpsichord in a gigue, can hardly fail to be received with delight. But in general what it all boils down to is Melkus and company showing us how many interesting things can be done with the music, and Grumiaux simply showing us how beautiful it is.
While my own preference is for Grumiaux, I suspect listeners who want both the sonatas themselves and Geminiani's concerto arrangements might prefer to have the Melkus sonatas, simply because they provide a sharper contrast with the concertos. In any event, anyone who can manage to hear all three of these sets will surely be the richer for it.
Both Philips sets were recorded in the early '70's, though apparently not issued here until now. Angel has a new reissue series, in addition to its by now well-established Seraphim line, called Red Line. Two of the worthwhile items just transferred to this series from the full-price label are Sir Thomas Beecham's marvelous recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (RL-32027) and a goodly helping of Grieg's music for "Peer Gynt" (RL-32026). While neither of these can compete with more recent recordings of these works sonically, the performances are treasurable and the sound as remastered for the new transers seems a little brighter than it did on the original full-price discs.
Some more recent recordings turn up on Red Line, too, among them Riccardo Muti's, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony and "Romeo and Juliet" (RL-32047). The annotation for this one, curiously, shows no awareness of the meaning of the Symphony's sobriquet, "Little Russian," but the performance of "Romeo and Juliet" is quite an appealing one.