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Hyperion Records

CDH55334 - Tartini: Violin Concertos
Portrait of Giuseppe Tartini, Italian School (18th century).
Museo degli Strumenti Musicali, Milan / Bridgeman Art Library, London
(Originally issued on CDA67345)
Recording details: May 2002
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: February 2010
Total duration: 69 minutes 17 seconds

'In every way this disc is superior to any Tartini recording I've ever heard: the soloist is in breathtaking form … in the quiet repose sometimes offered by the slow movements she and her wonderful continuo team are as eloquent as can be. One of my favourite discs this month' (Early Music Review)

'Both the music and performances on this disc will stimulate anyone with more than a passing interest in violin music and its performance' (The Irish Times)

'The soloist, Elizabeth Wallfisch, strikes a balance between ebullience and refinement. She makes a sweet sound' (The Evening Standard)

'Wallfisch endows the music with the virtuosity and quasi-improvisatory immediacy that is the essence of this tradition … plenty of pizzazz … these concertos never fail to captivate' (San Francisco Chronicle)

Violin Concertos
Allegro  [3'59]
Adagio  [2'13]
Allegro  [3'34]
Allegro  [5'47]
Fuga à la breve  [2'36]
Cantabile  [3'46]
Allegro assai  [4'12]
Allegro assai  [3'27]
Allegro assai  [5'50]
Allegro  [5'16]
Adagio  [1'49]
Allegro  [3'14]
Allegro  [8'35]
Cantabile  [2'59]
[Allegro]  [7'17]

Tartini lived a long life for his time yet his name has been etched on the history of music for just one single piece, the so-called “Devil’s Trill” sonata (recorded by Elizabeth Wallfisch on Hyperion CDA66430). This enterprising new recording should go a long way to revealing the richness of the vast body of his music that has remained perhaps overshadowed by his reputation as a ‘one-piece composer’. This is violin music that even its protagonists are happy to have described as real “fiddle” music, music that understands and indeed stretches the instrument from an inside-out knowledge of the instrument. These concertos are fabulous vehicles both of violin virtuosity and of baroque sensibility at its most energetic and fetching.

Elizabeth Wallfisch has earned a world-wide reputation for her panache and perfection in this repertoire and as can be seen from her discography on Hyperion, these concertos add to an impressive survey of the music that lies at the heart of the golden era of this golden instrument.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
To his contemporaries, Tartini was a figure of major importance. That his work as violinist, composer and teacher was enthusiastically admired and worthy of emulation is evident from the writings of Quantz, Leopold Mozart and Dr Charles Burney, and from the number of violinists who journeyed to Padua to study with him. His writings on musical theory had a more mixed response, but his acoustical and philosophical speculations were widely discussed as matters of importance. In a somewhat shadowy way, his fame has persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; students of the history of violin playing have been aware of the letter, often reprinted, to Maddalena Lombardini on the fundamental principles of violin playing, and, above all, the well-known story of the origin of his ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata has kept his name alive.

One night I dreamt that I had made a bargain with the Devil for my soul. Everything went at my command—my novel servant anticipated every one of my wishes. Then the idea struck me to hand him my fiddle and to see what he could do with it. But how great was my astonishment when I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed the boldest flight of my imagination. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted; my breath was taken away; and I awoke. Seizing my violin I tried to retain the sounds that I had heard. But it was in vain.

The piece composed from Tartini’s ‘scattered recollection’ of his dream has never fallen out of the violin repertoire, but only one other work, the G minor Sonata from the collection published in 1734 and known by its nineteenth-century nickname, ‘Didone abbandonata’, is at all familiar. There are now encouraging signs, however, that Tartini is being rediscovered, with recordings available of a wider range of his music, and his fine Treatise on Ornamentation, which served as the model for the corresponding chapters of Leopold Mozart’s violin school, available in print. Unlike his older contemporary Vivaldi, he did not diversify into dramatic works and large-scale church music, nor did he write concertos or sonatas for a wide range of instruments. The overwhelming majority of his works falls into just two categories: sonatas for a solo violin with basso continuo, and violin concertos with accompanying strings.

The biography of most major violinists includes reference to their early mastery of the instrument, and tours as child prodigies, but not Tartini’s. He was born in Pirano, on the Adriatic coast near Trieste (now Piran, in Slovenia). His parents wanted him to enter the priesthood; in 1708, however, he travelled to Padua and enrolled as a law student, but apparently spent most of his time dressed in priestly garb indulging his passion for fencing. Two years later he upset his clerical sponsors and his parents by getting married. Leaving his bride in Padua, he fled to Assisi, where he seems to have occupied himself by studying composition with the expatriate Bohemian organist Bohuslav Cernohorský. It was at this time, too, that he began to acquire a reputation as a violinist, especially after 1715, when, pardoned by the Bishop of Padua, he returned to his wife, dividing his time between Padua and Venice. A further period of intense study is said to have been prompted by hearing the great violinist Veracini in Venice; after this, his own reputation grew very quickly, and in 1721 he was appointed to a prestigious post as leader of the orchestra at St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua. He kept this position until he retired, more than forty years later, but was often absent playing elsewhere—from 1723 to 1726 he was in Prague, where he performed at the festivities attending the coronation of the Emperor Charles VI. In the 1720s, too, his music began to be widely known; the first publication, in Amsterdam in 1728, was of six concertos, Op 1, including the G minor, D major, and F major works on this CD. (Two further sets of concertos, as well as two different collections of sonatas, were also described as Op 1.)

Tartini’s theory of music was based upon his discovery early in his career of the combination tone—the lower, third pitch that can be heard whenever two different pitches are sounded together, whose frequency is the difference between the frequencies to the two sounded notes. We can easily imagine Tartini spending hours a day to perfect the intonation of his double-stopping, becoming acutely aware of these ‘natural’ bass notes. In an age that saw the aim of art to be the imitation of nature, this palpable presence of harmony in the natural world formed a persuasive basis for a view of music as a reflection of divine harmony. And we can well believe that in his violin concertos Tartini used his knowledge of the combination tones to space the voices of his four-part string textures so as to produce the open, luminous sound that is one of his fingerprints. His musical landscapes contain human figures, too, and here again he is concerned to refer to human emotions in a precise way. Many of his manuscript scores are prefaced by quotations, sometimes written in code, most often from Metastasio’s opera libretti, the music underneath being a mute setting of the words.

Even Tartini’s earlier music, like the Op 1 Concertos, shows him moving decisively away from baroque style; phrases are clearly outlined and balanced, harmonies and structures emphasize the most basic relationships of chord and key. But the G minor Concerto Op 1 No 1 also includes an extra movement beyond the usual Vivaldian three-movement design: a four-part fugue, without solo violin, placed after the opening Allegro. It is as though the composer is determined to show his serious credentials; if elsewhere he writes in a determinedly ‘modern’ style, lighter and more elegant than the older manner, it’s because he chooses to. The descending chromatic semitones of the fugue subject lend the movement an air of pathos, and the elaborate contrapuntal web has a beauty that makes this piece far more than a scholarly exercise.

The first movements are based on the familiar ritornello pattern established by Vivaldi, with an opening orchestral passage announcing a number of ideas and establishing a structural backbone, as it recurs several times during the movement in different keys. In some ways Tartini simplifies this plan—in the G minor and C major concertos the ritornello only comes three times. In other ways he makes it more subtle, with the solo violin muscling in on the orchestral sections (in the F major and B flat works) in order to create a dialogue. In the D major Concerto, the opposite effect occurs when, towards the end of the movement, the orchestra bursts in on a solo passage. In each concerto Tartini tends to establish a characteristic sound for the solo passages by means of different accompaniments: basso continuo (D major, B flat), violins in two parts (C major), or a single violin line (G minor). Only the F major Concerto uses a variety of accompaniments. The solo-writing alternates brilliant passagework (Tartini is especially fond of elaborate arpeggio passages) with a characteristic singing violin style. Quantz, who heard Tartini play in Prague in the 1720s, admired him for his virtuosity and tonal beauty, but criticized him for a lack of nobility and found the performance left him cold. He put this down to Tartini’s ‘abandoning the singing style, or at least its good and pleasing qualities’. Today, Tartini’s music may seem less original and bizarre than it did to Quantz, but it is easy to recognize the cantabile qualities in passages such as the opening solos to the B flat and D major concertos, despite their wide range and ‘unvocal’ intervals.

Tartini’s finales tend to mirror the opening movements in terms of their structure, but with a lighter, more rhythmic and dance-like character. The C major finale has suggestions of the minuet, and the B flat and D major movements are gigue-like. But each finale has a strongly individual character. In the G minor Concerto the energetic stamping rhythms of the opening give way to the soloist’s soaring arpeggios; in the B flat finale the carefree gigue-like atmosphere is continually subverted by the violin’s expressive upward leaps that take the music from its bright major tonality into a variety of dark, minor-key regions. Only at the very end of the movement is the conflict resolved, when the minor sixth is increased to a major interval, leading to a soft final cadence.

Of the slow middle movements, only the F major Concerto’s minor-key Adagio involves the whole orchestra, and even here the tutti participation is confined to a stern opening and closing framework. Otherwise, these pieces are solos, with accompaniment for basso continuo, or without continuo, the orchestral violins providing a light support. In the G minor concerto’s Cantabile, this support consists of a single, very simple bass line that only achieves any melodic quality when it echoes the solo violin at the cadence points. The austere beauty of this texture reflects the composer’s fascination with the sound of each harmonic interval. The melodic line of each of these movements takes the suave classical style of Corelli as its starting point, but Tartini typically adds a new element to extend the expressive range; in the B flat Concerto the mood is disrupted three times by a peremptory dotted rhythm; the C major’s slow Siciliano, with its delicate three-part texture, is made especially memorable by its varied modulations and subtle chromatic inflections. All in all, we’re more likely to agree not with Quantz, but with Dr Burney’s assessment of Tartini:

Though he made Corelli his model in the purity of his harmony and simplicity of his modulation, he far surpassed that composer in the fertility and originality of his invention; not only in the subjects of his melodies, but in the truly cantabile manner of treating them. Many of his adagios want nothing but words to be excellent pathetic opera songs. His allegros are sometimes difficult; but the passages fairly belong to the instrument for which they were composed, and were suggested by his consummate knowledge of the finger-board and the powers of the bow. As a harmonist, he was, perhaps, more truly scientific than any other composer of his time, in the clearness, character and precision of his Basses, which were never casual, or the effect of habit or auricular prejudice and expectation, but learned, judicious, and certain.

Duncan Druce © 2003

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