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Palladians presents a collection of works by the Italian composer and virtuoso violinist, Giuseppe Tartini. The ensemble also perform a sonata by Francesco Maria Veracini, a fellow composer and virtuoso violinist whose style greatly inspired Tartini.
Today’s listener can be forgiven for being bewildered and even benumbed by Nardini, Carbonelli, Locatelli, Tartini, Veracini, Pugnani and the like, but digging a little deeper reveals much interesting and individual music, and even a few real masterpieces. of course most of this music is frothy nonsense, either doggerel written for the amateur market, or exhilarating, but empty, concert fodder designed to amaze the masses. Not everyone was enthusiastic – witness the sceptical connoisseur Roger North in his rant on virtuoso fiddlers (thought to be inspired by a performance by the Florentine violinist Veracini at the Haymarket Theatre in London – more on Veracini later):
‘… no better than insane; for sometimes they run, then they start, then they chatter, and not seldom fall into a whistling way of high arpeggio, much prized for the difficulty of handling, and then coming a little to themselves, incline to sleep out a short adagio, after which, stand clear; for tripla comes, and tripla upon that, and devision upon that, with snappes upon snaps like a dog in distraction. And after all ends with what should be a dance called a jigg, but so swift, that no living man can run so fast as the measure is; it is impossible for a dancer to keep such time, and his whole action must be running about like a madman … And many persons that doe not well distinguish between real good and evill, but are hurryed away by caprice, as in a whirlwind, think such music is the best; and despise those who are not of the same opinion and [as the rabble] crye, It is brave sport … And as to these, in naming Vivaldi, (tho’ he hath his fellows) I have instanced enough.’
Since the invention of the violin, its players have been preoccupied with the challenge of playing higher and higher (North’s ‘whistling way’) and one could construct an amusing chart of ascending pitch (Ucellini, 1658, d”, Bertali 1670, e” etc) that would resemble those claims by Arctic explorers of who could achieve the farthest North world record in degrees until the North Pole was reached. Nowadays, of course, the second desk of orchestral violins routinely play higher – in a Shostakovich symphony for instance – than any eighteenth century virtuoso ever did, much in the manner that one can now book a luxury cruise liner to the Arctic – such is the fugitive nature of human endeavour and achievement.
One musician immune to the attractions of this violinistic ‘Absolute North’ however, was Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770). Famed throughout Europe as a pre-eminent virtuoso, he shunned publicity and was a private, even secretive man, passionately interested in astronomy, fencing and acoustics as well as music. Something of his character is revealed in the fact that many of his manuscripts were annotated in a secret code (deciphered only in 1935) concealing mottos and fragments of poetry by Metastasio, Petrarch and Tasso. Of the two programmatic sonatas recorded here ‘Didone abandonata’ is only described so in the autograph – in the published version it is simply Op 1 No 10, whilst The Devil’s Trill was only published posthumously. Thus, for Tartini, programmatic elements and sources of inspiration were matters to be kept private rather than trumpeted forth, the exact opposite of a canny Vivaldian marketing strategy.
While his works are often extraordinarily difficult, their virtuosity rises out of a desire to express rather than amaze; here a lightening quick leap of the bow to portray the fury of a princess scorned; there a fiendishly painful trill to mimic diabolical laughter. It is this intense pictorial inward gaze which seems at least as strong as his desire to create ‘brave sport’ that sets him somewhat apart from his colleagues.
Tartini’s most famous work is undoubtedly The Devil’s Sonata (known popularly as ‘The Devil’s Trill’ after the infamous passage in the last movement – described rather wonderfully in the score as ‘Devil’s Trill at the foot of the bed’). Not only was the work suppressed in Tartini’s lifetime, but the very first account of the story behind it was only printed after his death:
‘One night I dreamt that I had made a pact with the devil; he was my servant and anticipated my every wish. I had the idea of giving him my violin to see if he might play me some pretty tunes (beaux aires), but imagine my astonishment when I heard a sonata so unusual and so beautiful, performed with such mastery and intelligence, on a level I had never before conceived was possible! I was so overcome that I stopped breathing and awoke gasping. Immediately I seized my violin, hoping to recall some shred of what I had just heard – but in vain. The piece I then composed is without a doubt my best, and I still call it The Devil’s Sonata, but it falls so short of the one that stunned me that I would have smashed my violin and given up music forever if I could but have possessed it.’ (Tartini to J.J. Lalande. Voyage d’un Francais en Italie [1765–6])
While The Devil’s Sonata is a deservedly celebrated masterpiece – a triumph of imagination which has never left the repertory, in my view the lesser known work ‘Didone abandonata’ is possibly an even more extraordinary achievement. As a psychological study of abandonment, rage and despair it ranks easily alongside similar works by Monteverdi, Charpentier, and Purcell. The first movement is the most conventional – a searching aria in which the violin sings alternately of melancholy longing, memories of past happiness, and hopes for the future. The brief second movement vividly portrays the brain-lacerating fury of the abandoned Dido as she realizes that Aeneas is really not coming back. After this explosion, the final movement is Tartini’s masterstroke – an inconsequential scrap of melody so bleak and bereft that one can really feel the immanence of an impending suicide. Something which, in my opinion, for all its musical genius, Dido’s lament in Purcell’s opera fails to achieve. For equivalent insight into such an extreme mental state, we need either to look back to Lear or forward to Beckett.
A crucial event for the young Tartini was his meeting with the virtuoso Francesco Maria Veracini. He was so overwhelmed by the Florentine’s amazing bow technique that he withdrew from the public (and temporarily abandoned his wife) for a period of solitary practice, re-emerging with a longer bow, thicker strings and a new and wonderful control of cantabile playing.
The powerful forces of market distribution, i.e. the single composer bins in record stores, make us reluctant to adulterate our Tartinian product with too much foreign material but we couldn’t resist giving our listeners just an idea of Veracini’s style – so important to, but different from Tartini’s own. Thus we’ve dared to include a sonata from Veracini’s Opus 1. It illustrates, in the opening and fourth movements, his special cantabile and elsewhere, especially in the whirlwind finale, the sort of barnstorming virtuosity and lust for the heights that (pace North) created a storm of success in England, leading to the popular toast ‘One God, One King, and One Veracini!’ Of course Tartini composed lighter works as well, and the ‘Pastorale’ which closes his Opus 1 is a fine example. conjures up an idyllic countryside with its evocation of droning shepherd’s pipes and tambour, and the violin is given a unique silvery resonance by the clever trick of tuning the bottom two strings up a tone.
A very important friend and colleague of Tartini’s was the cello and bass viol player Antonio Vandini. They played together in the orchestra of the Cathedral of Padua – where Tartini was concertmaster – for about 50 years. They shared a house in their twilight years after the death of Tartini’s wife, and they travelled together to Prague and Vienna where they were invited to perform in the festivities for the coronation of Charles VII in 1723. The two were known to have played together without any help from a keyboard or lute (an Italian practice strongly condemned about this time by C.P.E. Bach) and we’ve presented the Largo from Op 1 No 5 in this way, so the listener can hear the intimacy this approach allows.
We take our leave of Tartini with a slow movement from one of the viol concertos written for Vandini – Grave in D minor. The orchestral accompaniment here is so restrained, probably to allow the subtlety of the viol to come through, that all the notes can be easily accommodated on the archlute. Tartini is in the next room, listening through the door, or perhaps dozing over one of his increasingly dotty essays on acoustics. Or is it just possible that he’s sitting there, brow furrowed, in front of a blank sheet of manuscript paper, trying in vain for the thousandth time, the millionth time, to remember the sounds of that incomparable, infernal dream?
William Carter © 2007