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Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762)

Sonatas for violoncello & basso continuo

Alison McGillivray (cello)
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Recording details: August 2004
St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: January 2007
Total duration: 74 minutes 35 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo of Alison McGillivray's cello by Clarissa Bruce (b?)

This is the debut solo release by versatile cellist Alison McGillivray who is joined by a trio of Baroque specialists.

They interprete a programme by striking and captivating virtuoso and composer Francesco Geminiani who studied with and succeeded to Alessandro Scarlatti and the great Corelli.


'Alison McGillivray is an imaginative and stylish interpreter of Geminiani's six cello sonatas Op 5' (The Strad)» More

'Even for baroque agnostics, the disc, with its endless stream of stylish and imaginative performance strokes, is absolutely convincing' (The Herald)» More

Francesco Geminiani arrived in London in 1714, the year after the death of Arcangelo Corelli. He came with the pedigree of having studied with Alessandro Scarlatti and the great Corelli himself. As a prodigious violinist he had rapidly outgrown the teaching of his violinist father in his birth town of Lucca, and had moved on to Rome after learning in Milan with the violinist Lonati. He was a striking and captivating virtuoso, but as such found himself received with divided opinion. An early post as concert master in the theatre orchestra in Naples had ended unhappily:

The performers were often unable to follow him in his tempo rubato, and other unexpected accelerations and relaxations of tempo. (Charles Burney)

The frustration of being in a less than subtle musical environment must have prompted the radical move to London. Geminiani seems to have arrived in the city full of optimism:

When I came first to London I found music in so thriving a state, that I had all the reason imaginable to suppose the growth [of the art of music] would be suitable to the excellency of the soil.

He spent the next 18 years in the city publishing, teaching, and performing. Like his master, Corelli, Geminiani dedicated his compositional talents to instrumental music. Within two years of his coming to London he had published his Op 1—a set of twelve Violin Sonatas. A further set of twelve, Op 4, was published in 1739. His particular love was for the concerto grosso form—one in which he could exploit his skills in imaginative orchestration and the weaving of musical textures, and which allowed him to flex his contrapuntal muscles. In total he published four sets of his own concerti grossi, but one of his better commercial successes was with the homage he paid to Corelli in reworking as concerti grossi the master’s Op 5 Violin Sonatas. At a stroke, this not only hugely advanced his name as a composer, but also made the music of Corelli available to a much broader range of musicians than before; ones who were in all likelihood unable to master the sonatas in their original form but were desperate to be part of the ever-spreading Corelli-fever.

The London of the beginning of the 18th century was one gripped by enthusiasm for all things Italian. Educated young men would come back from their travels on the ‘Grand Tour’ with their eyes widened by the riches of Italian art and architecture and their ears buzzing with the sounds of Rome and Venice. Italian opera was becoming highly fashionable—the young Georg Frederik Handel was gathering around him the best Italian singers and instrumentalists he could find to captivate his English audience. Geminiani’s circle would have naturally included these musicians—one such man was Pietro Castrucci, who arrived in town one year after Geminiani and was for many years the leader of Handel’s orchestra. Like Geminiani, he had been associated with Corelli in Rome. In 1720 Geminiani and Castrucci shared a publication (six each) of their flute sonatas. Between Handel himself and Geminiani, the best documented meeting is on the occasion of the violinist being granted his first royal audience with George I; Geminiani accepted on the condition that only Handel would be suitable to accompany him on the keyboard. The collaboration was a success and both men enjoyed the blessings of royal favour.

In what seems to be a recurring theme, Geminiani gradually became disillusioned by the state of musical life in the place he was living and felt the need to seek fresh inspiration. Of London, he said in 1748:

I have lived to be most miserably disappointed. The hand was more considered than the head; the performance than the composition; and hence it followed, that instead of labouring to cultivate a taste, which seem’d to be all that was wanting, the public was content to nourish insipidity.

He sought inspiration abroad in Holland, Paris and Dublin. The move to Dublin was perhaps prompted by one of his illustrious students, Matthew Dubourg, who had settled in the city in 1728, and conducted the orchestra in the Dublin première of Handel’s Messiah. In Dublin, Geminiani was also able to indulge his love of art by setting up a gallery and dealership, with concert rooms on the floor above. (He is said to have loved painting more than music, and was reported often to distract visitors who had come for musical reasons on to the subject of his collection, which reputedly included works by Correggio and Caravaggio.)

The time he spent in Paris was divided between overseeing the publication of his works and participating in concerts given at the Concert Spirituel and the Société Académique des Enfants d’Apollon. He would have been at the heart of cutting-edge Parisian performance mingling with, amongst others, the great composer and innovator, Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Geminiani’s Op 5 Violoncello Sonatas were first published in 1746 in Paris. Were these sonatas written with a particular performer in mind? If not, then certainly the burgeoning Parisian school of cello playing seems a likely inspiration. The long-established French antipathy to Italian culture was, by the 1730s, waning. There were many Italian cellists performing in Paris and many French viola da gamba players travelling to Italy to study the cello. This period also marked the publication of the first tutors for the cello: Salvatore Lanzetti published his manual ‘Principles of The Technique of the Violoncello’ (Amsterdam, 1736), and was by the late 1730s resident in Paris. Michel Corrette followed with his extensive cello method of 1741, which included instructions for those converting from gamba to cello. The heated debate on the supremacy of the gamba versus the cello was turning to the Italian instrument’s favour, with solo works for the instrument being promoted by both the Concert Spirituel and the Société Académique des Enfants d’Apollon.

Two specific cellists worth mentioning as possible intendees of Geminiani’s Sonatas are Jean Barrière (c1705-47) and Martin Berteau (1708-71), who both began their careers as gamba players. Barrière travelled to Italy some time after 1736 for a two-year immersion in the musical life there. He published four books of sonatas for the cello, the first two written in a strongly French musical language, owing much to the viola da gamba, while the second two (published on his return to Paris) are shot through with Italianate flavour. Berteau was also working in Paris at the time of Geminiani’s visits. He has the distinction of having taught almost all the great French cellists of the next generation, and became regarded as the founder of the French school of violoncello playing.

Another lead in the search for the inspiration for the Op 5 sonatas is hinted at by the association Berteau had with the great cellist Francesco Alborea (Franceschilli). A measure of Franceschilli’s fame lies in the anecdote apporting to the most famous French cellist of the 18th century, Jean-Pierre Duport, himself a pupil of Berteau: in order to spend only two hours with Franceschilli, Duport was said to have travelled all the way from Marseilles to Genoa. Looking back to Geminiani’s youth in Rome, it is tantalizing to think that Geminiani carried forward in his mind the memory of the remarkable cello playing he had heard there (reported here by Charles Burney):

[Franceschilli] the celebrated performer on the violoncello at the beginning of this century, accompanied one of the cantatas at Rome so admirably, while Scarlatti was at the harpsichord, that the company, being good Catholics and living in a country where miraculous powers have not yet ceased, were firmly persuaded it was not Franceschilli who had played the violoncello, but an angel that had descended and assumed his shape.

Geminiani’s reworkings for solo harpsichord of movements from his Op 1, 4, and 5 Sonatas give the greatest clue as to where his musical voice was heading. He had already in 1739 extensively revised and republished his Op 1 Violin Sonatas. The elaborations, ornamentations and explicit directions he gives to the performer show how he hoped to guide the quixotic taste of the musical public. With the Pièces de clavecin, he managed the remarkable transformation of turning his earlier Corelli-inspired sonata writing into French harpsichord music. These works were printed in 1743, with a later volume published in 1762 entitled The Second Collection of Pieces for Harpsichord. His Op 5 Cello Sonatas are an intriguing and delicately balanced fusion of Italianate clarity and counterpoint and French lavishness of sonority and gesture. The first movement of Op 5 No 2 in particular seems born out of the great French viola da gamba repertoire. One difficulty in writing for the cello lies in working a convincing dialogue between melody and bass line, where the parts often share the same octave. Geminiani often lets the lines cross, allowing the strength of his counterpoint to carry the music forward. He revels in the sonority created by the two cellos; the middle section of the last movement of the opus seems a homage to the instrument itself.

The Op 5 Cello Sonatas are a work of genius. They come from the mind of a man who was meticulous in his craft and dedicated to his art, whose imagination was indeed ‘warm and glowing’ and who even the age of 72 was admired for his ‘fine and elegant taste, and perfection of time and tune’.

Alison McGillivray © 2005

The intention of music is not only to please the ear, but to express sentiments, strike the imagination, affect the mind, and command the passions. The art of playing the violin [and violoncello] consists in giving that instrument a tone that shall in a manner rival the most perfect human voice.

Men of purblind understandings, and half ideas may perhaps ask, is it possible to give meaning and expression to wood and wire; or to bestow upon them the power of raising and soothing the passions of rational beings? But whenever I hear such a question put, whether for the sake of information, or to convey ridicule, I shall make no difficulty to answer in the affirmative, and without searching over deeply into the cause, shall think it sufficient to appeal to the effect. Even in common speech a difference of tone gives the same word a different meaning. And with regard to musical performances, experience has shown that the imagination of the hearer is in general so much at the disposal of the master, that he may almost stamp what impression on the mind he pleases.

I would besides advise the performer who is ambitious to inspire his audience, to be first inspired himself; which he cannot fail to be if he chooses a work of genius, if he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with all its beauties; and if while his imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted spirit into his own performance. (from the Art of Playing on the Violin, London 1751)

Francesco Geminiani ©

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