At first glance, the title of this disc, Venice in Mexico , led me to think this might be a collection of Italian Baroque composers who emigrated to Mexico or, failing that, of late 17th-and early 18th-century native-born Mexican composers. It turns out to be neither. The Mexican connection, however, is Miguel Lawrence and his Mexican Baroque Orchestra, and Italian-born composer Giacomo Facco (1676–1753), if not for whom the Mexican Baroque Orchestra wouldn’t exist.
Long story short, Facco, like many a dutiful Italian composer of his day, first gained attention as a violinist, procured a court position (in this case at the court of Carlo Antonio Spinola, Marquis of los Balbases, Viceroy of Sicily), and soon found himself in demand as a composer of sacred vocal works and operas. Fought over for his services by the competing Spanish and Portuguese courts, Facco chose Spain, where, through a series of posts, he eventually acceded in 1731 to the post of clavichord master to Don Carlos, the future King Carlos III. By Baroque standards, Facco didn’t write a great deal of music, and much of what he did was destroyed in a 1734 fire at the Royal Chapel in Madrid. From there, Facco’s fortunes took a nosedive. Backstabbing colleagues conspired against him, until in his last years he’d been stripped of title, position, and possessions.
Here comes the Mexican connection. In 1961, music scholar Uberto Zanoli discovered a dust-covered set of 12 concertos, titled Pensieri Adriarmonici (Adriatic Harmony Thoughts) by Facco, languishing in Mexico City’s Library of Colegio de las Vizcainas. Exactly how or when they got there is uncertain—the booklet note speculates around 1723—but they had been published in Amsterdam between 1716 and 1718.
The Mexican Baroque Orchestra was formed by Miguel Lawrence in 2009 under private sponsorship specifically for the purpose of performing these concertos. Thus, I find myself at a loss to understand why, of the eight concertos on this CD, only two are from the Facco collection of 12, while the other six by Vivaldi have all had more than their fair share of representation on disc. If you don’t recognize the concerto for psaltery, it’s because RV 425 is actually the well-known concerto for mandolin. We don’t really need more Vivaldi, do we? I can’t help but wonder why Miguel Lawrence, especially given his explicit charter to perform Facco’s concertos, would not have recorded the entire set, or at least as many of them as would fit on the disc. This strikes me as a really squandered opportunity.
Lawrence, if he reads this, would no doubt argue that his program affords the listener the opportunity to hear not just two unfamiliar works but several familiar ones given in unusual, perhaps unique, performances. For you see, the standard Baroque complement of instruments one would expect to hear employed for the continuo parts—harpsichord and cello, or in some cases low, plucked string instruments, such as theorbo and archlute—are replaced in Lawrence’s Mexican Baroque Orchestra with what the booklet note calls “Mexican colonial instruments like the vihuela and the guitarrón, according to 18th-century practice in Mexico.” Otherwise, despite the orchestra’s name, these are not period-instrument performances, though they are played one to a part.
I’m strongly tempted to say that if Facco had written more than he did, and ill fate had not befallen him and his music, our CD collections today would be bulging with Facco instead of Vivaldi. Based on just these two concertos, Facco makes Vivaldi sound almost stale, all the more reason that I’m just furious with Lawrence for not having given us more of them.
But guess what? Lawrence and his Mexican Baroque Orchestra have been scooped. Hiding in my collection between Joseph Eybler and Manuel de Falla, I found a Pavane CD I’d forgotten I had, proclaiming to be the world premiere recording of Book 2 (the concertos seven through 12) of Facco’s Pensieri Adriarmonici publication. It was recorded in 1999 by the Ensemble Albalonga on period instruments. Moreover, there’s a recording on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi with L’Arte dell’Arco, containing what I believe to be the six concertos of Book 1 (Nos. 1–6), though I can’t be sure because I don’t have that particular CD. Anyway, I realized that Facco was not quite the unknown I thought he was when I first began this review.
This in no way, however, changes my reaction to or enthusiasm for his music. These concertos really do sound like the best things Vivaldi never wrote. So, if you love Vivaldi, and you can’t get enough of him, I would submit to you that Facco is the perfect fix for your habit. His music is so vigorous, so high-spirited, and so infectious you will tap your feet, clap your hands, bob your head, and swing your whole body in rhythm to its allegros and hum along to the sweet strains of its adagios.
The plucked continuo instruments lend these performances a bright, almost bell-like quality that rather resembles something approximating a cross between a cittern and a celesta. The sound can be quite delightful, though I do have doubts as to their historical authenticity in music of this origin and time period. All the more reason for skepticism is Vivaldi’s popular mandolin concerto adapted for psaltery. Hernán Plama y Meza’s note rationalizes that Vivaldi, being a fan of unusual instruments of his time, “would not have been slow to add a new ring to his repertoire of sounds.” The problem is that by Vivaldi’s day, the psaltery, a medieval plucked instrument of the harp or zither family, had pretty much had its moment in the sun, and though a few 18th-century composers kept it alive, “the fact that Vivaldi, who wrote for almost every instrument of his time, didn’t compose anything for it,” as Johan van Veen of MusicWeb International notes, “makes it rather implausible to suggest that he would have approved of such a performance.” He concludes that “these performances are relics of a bygone era.” What the psaltery sounds like, at least in this recording, is a set of tuned finger cymbals or a Lilliputian lyre.
Questions about the instruments aside, I will say that the Mexican players and their performances on this disc are outstanding. Manuel Zogbi is highly accomplished. His insertion of sizzling embellishments into the already rapid passagework of Vivaldi’s popular A-Minor Concerto from L’Estro Armonico is amazing, as are his dazzling virtuosity, spontaneity, perfect pitch, and beautiful tone. Miguel Lawrence, in addition to conducting, plays the two sopranino recorder concertos by Vivaldi with sufficient timbral resonance and sustaining power to summon the neighborhood’s dogs. As for psalterist Daniel Armas, I doubt that he finds his phone ringing off the hook with offers to record classical music, but I understand he enjoys a professional career both in the Mexican film industry and in accompanying famous Mexican singers.
Despite my reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed this disc and recommend it, but I plead with you to seek out more complete offerings of Facco’s concertos on Pavane, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and possibly other labels. You’ll be glad you did.