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Baroque Instrumental Music from the Italian States
La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2020
Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Fox-Gál
Engineered by Simon Fox-Gál
Release date: February 2021
Total duration: 70 minutes 31 seconds

Tabea Debus adds her charismatic recorder virtuosity to the violins and continuo of La Serenissima for a wide-ranging survey of the multi-instrument sonata which flourished at the turn of the eighteenth century throughout the vibrant states of Italy.

The early 1600s saw a dramatic increase in the publication of instrumental music which reflected and in turn promoted a greater technical proficiency amongst its consumers. The preferred instruments were the violin and the cornett, but the violin’s greater dexterity ensured its survival and the cornett’s demise. With a huge range, an ability to cross large intervals, play double-stops and endless passages, the violin family became indispensable to composers of both instrumental and vocal music. It is no coincidence that those who excelled at the former hailed from northern Italy, the reputed birthplace of the instrument and home to the two great centres of violin making, Cremona and Brescia.

The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the arrival of a new generation of virtuoso violinist-composers who made good use of the fertile ground prepared by composers such as Arcangelo Corelli at the turn of the century. One of the most legendary of these figures (perhaps of all time) was Giuseppe Tartini who spent much of his career in Padua, where he was employed as leader and solo violinist of the orchestra of the Basilica del Santo from 1721 until his retirement in 1765 at the age of 73; he was also in charge of all the instrumental music for the services during which the faithful would admire and contemplate St Anthony’s tongue, the most famous relic of the Basilica. His colleagues in the orchestra included the cellist Antonio Vandini and the composer and theorist Padre Francesco Antonio Vallotti. Not only was Tartini a brilliant violinist and composer, but he was also a famous pedagogue, teaching some of Europe’s finest violinists in what was to become known as 'La Scuola delle Nazioni' ('The School of Nations'). It is unsurprising therefore that his violin concertos and sonatas are incredibly difficult, featuring double, triple and quadruple stopping, high passagework and feasts of trills. The sonata in E minor from his Opus 1 sonatas (Tartini also published another collection of works under the title of Opus 1, a collection of 12 concertos for violin, strings and continuo) shows off the violin’s unlikely talent for polyphony in its Corellian second movement whilst the finale is a fiendish study in trills.

Tartini’s colleague at the Basilica del Santo, Antonio Vandini was one of the finest cellists of the eighteenth century; his hunched posture and underhand bowing technique were captured for posterity by the Rococo artist and caricaturist Pier Leone Ghezzi. Before his move to Padua, we find Vandini at the Ospedale della Pietà where, as a colleague of Vivaldi, he taught the viol and cello to members of the figlie di coro during the 1710s. Whilst only one concerto and six sonatas (all for cello) survive by Vandini, it is apparent that he was a very fine player. The sonata in A minor is virtuosic, but in comparison with the sonatas of Tartini, Vandini shows a more Vivaldian outlook in his use of fast passagework and bariolage. (Bariolage is a technique which involves crossing three or four strings, generally using a consistent pattern throughout the passage; the technique is normally (but not exclusively) used in fast movements. Depending on the pattern chosen by the performer (or specified by the composer) its effects can range from sparkling brilliance to the melancholic. It was first used widely by Vivaldi who was one of its main champions.)

By complete contrast, the sonata in G minor by Dall’Abaco completely eschews the technical wizardry of Vivaldi, Tartini and Vandini. Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco came from a relatively wealthy Veronese family and possibly learnt the violin with Giuseppe Torelli until the latter’s relocation to Bologna in 1685. Dall’Abaco appears, like Corelli, to have been a composer who liked to tinker with and perfect his works before bringing his labours to print. Apart from a collection of violin sonatas in Vienna and one or two other works that survive in manuscript, the rest of his surviving output numbers just 66 works, produced in six publications. The Opus 4 collection of solo sonatas pays homage to an older Torellian, even Albinonian style of sonata whilst introducing the occasional French movement such as the Largo found here.

Whilst working for the Electress of Bavaria in Munich, Dall’Abaco met a fellow Italian by the name of Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello. Much of Brescianello’s early life remains shrouded in mystery, but we think that he was born in Bologna and spent the early part of his career in Venice (as a valet to the exiled Electress of Bavaria) before moving to the court of Munich (when the Electress was reinstated) and thence to the Württemberg Court in Stuttgart. It seems likely that his formative Venetian years enabled him to fully absorb Vivaldi’s style, as his 12 concertos Opus 1 (c1727) clearly show the influence of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico and La stravaganza. His travels north of the Alps later enabled him to fuse the Italian with the French and English styles (what Telemann referred to as ‘the mixed taste’) as shown brilliantly in his six orchestral suites and Chaconne as well as in this wonderful sonata (preserved in the hand of Pisendel). Throughout Brescianello’s surviving works, one encounters some truly original ideas and the trio sonata in question here certainly doesn’t disappoint: the repeats in the second movement are most unusual in that they are written out in full but with the two violin parts swapped around; it is most odd that the second violin is given the first bite of the cherry.

Winds and brass were frequently required in Italy for important religious feast days (of which there were many) and as the eighteenth century wore on, so the players of these instruments were increasingly to be found on the payrolls of opera houses. Even so, lacking the town bands of the German peoples and the rich woodwind culture beloved of the French, it was unusual for an Italian such as Vivaldi to produce such a prodigious quantity of music for wind instruments. This was mainly due to his longstanding relationship with the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian foundling hospital which provided tuition and performance opportunities to a select group of female inmates. In addition to the standard continuo and string instruments of the time, the women of the Pietà also played the recorder, flute, oboe, chalumeau and clarinet and it was probably for a select group of these players that Vivaldi composed his concerto in A minor for recorder, two violins and continuo. This concerto is part of a group of around twenty ‘chamber concertos’ (i.e. concertos without orchestra) composed by Vivaldi. This genre was relatively popular in Italy, particularly in Naples where there survives a manuscript of 24 concertos for recorder by various composers including Barbella, Mancini, Mele, Sarro, Scarlatti (Alessandro) and the Englishman, Robert Valentine. The style of these concertos is old fashioned when compared to Vivaldi’s slick tripartite form; virtuosity is also less apparent with the other instruments of the ensemble given a more prominent role than in Vivaldi’s concertos. However, the quality of the music contained within these concertos is superlative, containing some astonishing harmony and counterpoint of the finest vintage.

Adrian Chandler © 2021

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