Never heard of Carbonelli? Don’t feel too bad about it. The Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot writes that he “has remained unknown, even to specialists.” Listen to the music, though, and you will wonder how work of such quality and intricacy could vanish so comprehensively into the mists of history.
Carbonelli was a star violinist in London during Handel’s time. Born in Livorno in 1694 and possibly half-French, he becomes concertmaster at Drury Lane Theatre at the age of 25 and a much sought-after soloist. The Duke of Rutland paid for the publication of 12 sonatas and Carbonelli seemed well set when, in 1730, aged 36, he met and married Elizabeth Warren, a parish clerk’s daughter, converted to Anglicanism and changed his trade to wine merchant. He died in 1773, leaving us none the wiser as to his motives.
The music recovered here by the period-instrument violinist Bojan Čičić and the effervescent Illyria Consort raises more questions than answers. It is fabulously inventive, never falling into the pedagogic mould of a Vivaldi sonata, always challenging the players with added layers of difficulty. Carbonelli presumably wrote the sonatas to show off his prodigious skills but, in doing so, he may have stretched the tolerance of his listeners. There are passages in the sonatas of real complexity, episodes where the ear struggles to make sense of all that is going on. Was Carbonelli the Stockhausen of his time? Not quite, but he’s tough and he wants you to know it. He’s also unfashionably frugal with emotional rewards: wherever he wore his heart, it was not on his musical sleeve. That said, the music has a unique appeal – lively, restless, catchy and extremely well written. The long-forgotten Carbonelli is a major find by a boutique label, Delphian, a Scottish firm that rarely issues a dud disc.