'There is some stunningly exuberant virtuosity on display here. A magnificent, exhilarating disc that goes straight into contention for the Want List. Buy a copy and give yourself a rare and special treat' (Fanfare, USA)
'Dazzling playing' (BBC Music Magazine)
'An unusual and rewarding disc' (Classic FM Magazine)
Dario Castello remains one of the most mysterious of composers: beyond a couple of references to his name on the title pages to his published works there is no record of his life; it has even been suggested—albeit inconclusively—that the name is an anagram. Yet his music offers clear testimony to his creative skills. The 1621 volume, which comprises twelve works, presents the first ever collection devoted entirely to instrumental sonatas; likewise, the seventeen pieces published in 1629 are also exclusively sonatas. Castello takes elements of the traditional multi-voiced Venetian canzona, not least passages of virtuoso solo writing and of concertante exchanges between several players, and successfully introduces them into extended works.
Much more is known of the life of Giovanni Picchi. He was a fine harpsichordist, organist of several Venetian churches and institutions, and a noted performer and composer of dance music. The works on this recording are as innovative and varied as this heritage would suggest.
The Carnival of Venice is every where talk’d of. The great Diversion of the Place at that time, as well as on all other high Occasions, is Masking. The Venetians, who are naturally Grave, love to give into the Follies and Entertainments of such Seasons, when dignified in a false Personage … there is something more intriguing in the Armours of Venice, than in those of other Countries, and I question not but the Secret History of a Carnival would make a Collection of very diverting Novels. (John Evelyn, 1645)
Intrigue and mystery were upheld as virtues by the inhabitants of early-seventeenth-century Venice, practised and refined by high and low alike and elevated to an art form by the city state’s secret police. A contemporary wood carving by Francesco Pianta, among the treasures of the Scuola di San Rocco, highlights the furtive qualities of a typical Venetian spy, his identity fully concealed beneath cloak and hat. It is a neat irony of La Serenissima’s history that details of Dario Castello’s life remain obscure, despite the extant wealth of archival evidence on musicians whose own compositions fall short of his cultivated, forward-looking works.
The name Castello was, and is still, common in Venice; indeed, there appears to have been a family of musicians who served the Doge and other Venetian employers in the first half of the seventeenth century and perhaps earlier. Payment and census records, contracts and necrologies from the period refer to three Castello instrumentalists who were almost certainly related: Bartolomeo, Giovanni Francesco and Giovanni Battista. The last of these was engaged as a member of the Doge’s six-strong team of piffari, or wind players, from 27 December 1624 to 15 November 1633, noted in the San Marco archives as son of ‘Dario of Venice, musician in our aforementioned chapel’.
Other biographical references to Dario Castello appear only in the title-pages and dedications of the composer’s two volumes of ‘Sonate concertate’, published in Venice respectively in 1621 and 1629. Several editions of Castello’s popular yet technically demanding and musically adventurous sonata anthologies were made, with Book I reprinted in Venice and Antwerp as late as 1658. Two editions of Book I describe the composer as ‘Capo di Compagnia de Musichi d’Instrumenti da fiato in Venetia’, leader of a Venetian company of piffari, while the Book II dedications announce that he was also a musician at San Marco. Eleanor Selfridge-Field’s painstaking archival detective work in the 1960s and early 1970s discovered no mention of a Dario Castello, musician or otherwise, resident in Venice between 1621 and 1658. Her attempts to reconstruct a ‘non-existent’ biography include the suggestion that the composer’s sonata volumes were published under an anagram of his real name, although there appears to be no suitable candidate to satisfy the efforts even of determined problem-solvers. (Selfridge-Field, Eleanor: ‘Dario Castello: A non-existent biography’. Music and Letters, 53 (1972), 179–190)
The evidence of Castello’s music and its publication history offer clear testimony to his creative skills and stature as a composer of considerable influence. The 1621 volume, which comprises twelve works, presents the first ever collection devoted entirely to instrumental sonatas; likewise, the seventeen pieces published in 1629 are also exclusively sonatas. Here Castello takes elements of the traditional multi-voiced Venetian canzona, not least passages of virtuoso solo writing and of concertante exchanges between several players, and successfully introduces them into extended works for fewer instruments.
Although these sonatas are cast in one continuous ‘movement’, Castello introduced clear tempo marks, such as adasio, alegra or alegro and presto, to highlight formal subdivisions and contrasting affects. Sonata No 8 from Book II, for example, contains six changes of tempo indications or metre. This work is typical of the marriage of old and new, the imitative counterpoint of its opening section recalling the canzonas of Giovanni Gabrieli, the pervading virtuosity and expressive central Adagio signposting the way towards future developments in Venetian instrumental writing. The slow sections in the magnificent Sonata No 13 from Book II confirm the power of the composer’s melodic imagination, underlined by well-argued points of imitation and eloquent suspensions, with the listener’s attention engaged elsewhere in the work by the sheer variety and virtuosity of the writing.
Castello also pioneered the use of bar lines, ruled to mark intervals of a whole semibreve, in his partbooks (a rare practice before the 1650s) and for the first time distinguished the clavicembalo or spineta as substitutes for the organ as basso continuo instruments. The technical demands, careful formal arrangement and expansive length of Castello’s works set them apart from other works issued as ‘sonatas’ during the early decades of the seventeenth century. In the second edition of Book I, published in Venice in 1629, Castello concedes that the contents are difficult because of their modern style: players should persevere and not give up at the first attempt. According to Selfridge-Field:
Castello’s importance within the Venetian tradition is … considerable, for in his works, all published within two decades of [Giovanni] Gabrieli’s death, many characteristic traits of the eighteenth-century Venetian repertory are already present. Homophonic and fugal ritornellos, virtuoso solos, concertino passages for two instruments, cadenzas, octave echoes, emphasis on wind solos and wind-and-string ensembles, detailed instructions concerning performance … are already to be found in the works of Castello and his closest contemporaries. (Selfridge-Field, Eleanor: Venetian instrumental music from Gabrieli to Vivaldi, 3rd revised edn (New York: Dover, 1994), 138)
If Dario Castello was employed at San Marco at some point after the publication of his Book I and before the initial typesetting work on his Libro secondo in September 1627, it is likely that he would have worked with and known the Basilica’s maestro di cappella, Claudio Monteverdi. The two composers occasionally share common musical characteristics, with Castello adopting the dramatic repeated notes and tremolo effects of the stile concitato or ‘agitated style’ in several of his instrumental works and, like Monteverdi, calling on the bassoon to emerge from the continuo ranks to perform short solos. The bassoon or dulcian, an important and well-regarded member of Venice’s wind bands, is specified in several of Castello’s sonatas. His affection and respect for the instrument can be heard in the virtuoso passages he created for it, not least in Sonata No 8 from Book II, where it engages in contrapuntal dialogue with and matches the bold writing for cornett.
Castello took care to specify the instrumentation or possible permutations of instruments in many of his sonatas, with cornetts and violins prescribed for the treble lines, accompanied by a choice of sackbuts, bassoon and basso continuo instruments. Sonata No 14 from Book II closes with a fantasia-like final slow section, dramatic in its dovetailed part-writing for two cornetts and two sackbuts. Contrasts between treble and bass instruments are intelligently exploited in this sonata, its free-flowing duos and buoyant fugato motifs strikingly vocal in style. It is in the Sonata No 17 from Book II that Castello reveals his shrewdest handling of instrumental texture, pairing two cornetts and two violins and calling on one from each pair to serve as a subordinate echoing voice. The performing edition used for this recording elects to omit the basso continuo part’s upper stave, which, in the original publication, bears a simplified version of lines played by the two treble instruments. The antiphonal effects present in earlier large-scale Venetian instrumental canzonas are here distilled into a work of chamber or private chapel proportions, grand in conception and yet intimate in expression. A comparable balance between soloistic display and ensemble intimacy is struck in the three-part Sonatas Nos 10 and 11 and the two-part Sonata No 5, all from Castello’s Libro secondo.
Although Giovanni Picchi’s accomplishments as a composer are overshadowed by those of his contemporary Castello, his career can at least be charted in outline thanks to the survival of archival and other primary evidence. Picchi spent most of his working life in the San Polo district of Venice, where he also helped raise six children, serving as organist at the church of Santa Maria de’ Frari from around 1606 until his death on 19 May 1643.
In 1623 he succeeded the recently deceased Giovanni Battista Grillo as organist of the neighbouring confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a post formerly occupied by Giovanni Gabrieli. The organist’s duties at the scuola were recorded in 1588, with incumbents expected to attend Mass and Vespers on twenty-four feast days; Mass on the first Sunday of each month, excluding Advent and Lent; Vespers every Sunday and Compline every Friday. Picchi would also have been expected to organize musicians to represent the scuola in the city’s elaborate ducal trionfi or processions. In 1624 he was invited to compete for the post of second organist at San Marco, although the basilica’s lord procurators decided to elect Giovanni Pietro Berti instead.
Before he assumed the responsibilities of a musician in service of church and scuola, Picchi became established as a successful composer and performer of dance music. An engraving on the title-page of Fabritio Caroso’s dance tutor of 1600, Nobilità di dame, shows Picchi playing the lute in consort with three other players; he was also known as a fine harpsichordist. The Toccata, a work of improvisatory élan, was inaccurately copied by Francis Tregian the younger to become part of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and must date from before his death in 1619. The circumstances and route of the work’s transmission from north Italy to Tregian’s cell in London’s Fleet Prison, where he compiled the Fitzwilliam anthology, are uncertain, although it appears that the copyist was supplied either with a corrupt version or misconstrued Picchi’s original notation. For this recording, Timothy Roberts has followed the precedent set by Howard Ferguson’s edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in correcting obvious errors and recasting the Toccata’s final section to close in the key of D rather than in Tregian’s less satisfactory G.
Caroso cited Picchi among the ‘professori di ballare’ in his influential tutor, an attribution confirmed in the late 1610s with the publication of the composer’s Intavolatura di balli d’arpicordo. The original edition has not survived although its contents are known through the 1621 Venetian reprint. Picchi failed to honour his dedicatory promise to supply the volume’s readers with another ‘four books of dances which I shall have printed when I see that this first book proves pleasing to the public’. Perhaps the market for domestic keyboard music was not sufficiently strong in early-seventeenth-century Venice to support such an ambitious series. Whatever the case, Picchi’s published balli include a number of attractive, often adventurous pieces, so-called Polish, German and Hungarian suites among them. The Ballo Ungaro, here performed on harp, delivers an artless, unforced treatment of a bi-partite dance complete with graceful attendant variations. In the Padoana ditta la Ongara Picchi makes use of a ground bass built from three distinct yet similar motifs above which he displays his talent for crafting rapid and appealing divisions. The ‘Hungarian’ provenance of both pieces is unclear although it is tempting to imagine the Padoana’s rhythmic energy adding life and exotic passion to the Carnival shenanigans described by Evelyn.
Four years after the publication of the Intavolatura’s second edition, Picchi’s Canzoni da sonar con ogni sorte d’istromenti was issued in Venice, its contents printed in nine partbooks and most probably destined for church performance. These instrumental works are arranged in five groups, for two, three, four, six and eight parts with basso continuo. For no obvious reason the final composition in each group is given the title ‘sonata’, despite retaining the formal and stylistic features of their companion canzonas. Sectional subdivisions are marked in these works not by tempo indications after the manner of Castello but by straightforward changes from duple to triple metre or vice versa.
Picchi prescribed the instruments to be used in many of his canzonas, creating a number of interesting combinations such as the four sackbuts and two violins employed in Canzon No 15, a work confusingly styled as ‘sonata’ in a few of the partbooks. The composer’s sackbut writing is especially appealing in its richness here and in the eight-part Canzon No 17. In this recording the latter work, for two instrumental choirs, has been transposed down a fourth from its written pitch, as may have been intended by its configuration of so-called ‘chiavette’ clefs. (For an explanation of clefs and further information on transposition cf. Arthur Mendel: ‘Pitch in western music since 1500: A re-examination’, Acta Musicologica, 50 (1978), 58–62) Aspects of the Gabrielian canzona rise to the surface in this work, notably the simple homophonic exchanges that give character to the triple-metre sections, the antiphonal writing that pervades the entire composition and the ‘quilt-like’ disposition of its often short contrasting sections.
Another speculative treatment has been applied here to the Canzon No 18, which appears in the 1625 publication as a work for two four-part choirs. Keyboard transcriptions of polyphonic compositions were routinely made throughout the Renaissance and well into the seventeenth century, while the availability of more than one organ in the wealthiest Venetian chapels and churches of the period contributes further to the legitimacy of arranging the penultimate canzona from Picchi’s book for two organs. The basso continuo part of the six-part Canzon No 14 has also been subdivided between two organs, underpinning the contrasts created by Picchi’s combination of two cornetts and sackbuts.
Andrew Stewart © 1998