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The music of Brescianello shows a strong debt to Vivaldi, but with more than a hint of the Germanic thoroughness he would have encountered during his long tenure as Oberkapellmeister of the Württemberg court during the middle of the eighteenth century. His surviving output is of an exceedingly high quality, as this new album makes abundantly clear.
If the first project on our return to work was to be experimental in terms of our working practices, then we felt that it should also be experimental in terms of repertoire; Brescianello’s Opus 1 seemed like a good fit and so the first six works were recorded and released (along with an orchestral suite in B flat) as, this despite the threat of another lockdown hanging over us like the sword of Damocles.
By the time we came to record the second part of the collection, things had moved on. The UK’s classical music sector had changed vastly since the outbreak of Covid, particularly regarding the dire levels of funding on offer (still an ongoing situation fed by a total lack of political will); but despite being confronted with a near-impossible financial state of affairs, concerts were back on the agenda even if audiences were initially—and understandably so—cautious about returning to hear live music. These issues aside, we were able to perform three of the works included here to a live audience before entering the recording studio, a marked improvement upon the 2020 experience; rehearsing in advance of the sessions (and concert) was also a boon.
Since recording our first work by Brescianello back in 2019, we have become very familiar with the music of this enigmatic and stylish Bolognese; the works featured here certainly present a good case for a major Brescianello revival. If it was only around 100 years ago that Vivaldi’s music was dredged from obscurity, is it possible that Brescianello’s music can become an accepted part of the classical canon?
Relatively little is known about Brescianello’s early life. He is understood to have been born in Bologna but the earliest documentary evidence concerning his whereabouts finds him in Venice (1714) working as a valet for Therese Kunegunde Sobieska, the music-loving exiled Electress of Bavaria. Once activities at the Bavarian court resumed following the Treaty of Baden at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Electress wrote to her husband the Elector Maximilian II Emanuel, proposing that he should employ Vivaldi as his Kapellmeister. Although Theresa’s request was refused on grounds of cost, she did manage to return with Brescianello who, on arrival in Munich was awarded a post as a violinist in the Bavarian Hofkapelle.
It wasn’t long before Brescianello was on the move again. Following the death in 1716 of Johann Christoph Pez, Oberkapellmeister of the Württemberg court (in Stuttgart), Brescianello successfully applied for the post of Director musices. Even though his initial brief was to take charge of the court’s chamber music, Brescianello, perhaps with one eye on the post of Oberkapellmesiter, decided to dedicate his ‘opera pastorale’ Tisbe to Duke Eberhard Ludwig in January 1718; he eventually succeeded to his preferred position in 1721. Although Brescianello’s fortunes ebbed and flowed in tandem with those of the court (he lost his post completely between 1737 and 1744), he remained in nearby Ludwigsburg until his death in 1758.
He was not a prolific composer by the standards of Telemann or Vivaldi, but his surviving output is of an exceedingly high quality. It is surprising that the Opus 1 was to be his only published set of works as further collections such as this would surely have spread news of his talent far and wide. Indeed, one contemporary ambassador of virtuoso violin music, Johann Georg Pisendel (leader of the Dresden court orchestra and pupil of Vivaldi) had access to this set and several other works by Brescianello, but more about him later.
The collection was published in Amsterdam (c1727) by Le Cene, who was then arguably the most in-demand of the European music printing houses, issuing collections of works by many fashionable composers such as Albinoni, Corelli, Tartini, Valentini and Vivaldi. The set is made up of 12 works that are divided into two books, each consisting of 3 concertos for violin and strings, and 3 Sinphonie for strings alone (although the slow movement of the final Sinphonia is scored for solo violin and upper strings). The works are fused with a Germanic thoroughness in their harmonic outlook but also show a strong debt to Vivaldi—in particular, the concertos of L’estro armonico (Opus 3) and La Stravaganza (Opus 4), both publications that were current during Brescianello’s Venetian period.
In the second part of the publication, Vivaldi’s influence is found in abundance in the fifth and sixth concertos. The fifth concerto draws heavily on the opening of Vivaldi’s eighth concerto from La Stravaganza (RV248), whilst the opening of the finale to the sixth concerto bears a striking resemblance to the first ritornello of the equivalent movement of the third concerto from L’estro armonico (RV310) with its running bass and use of binary form. Perhaps even more striking is the inclusion of a cadenza at the end of this concerto, one of the earliest to appear in print. Whilst it does not come close to the level of showmanship one would expect to find in a Vivaldi cadenza (although it is by no means easy thanks to some rather unidiomatic writing typical of Brescianello’s violin oeuvre), we have nevertheless a clear indication that he was aware of works such as Vivaldi’s Grosso Mogul (RV208) and Concerto per la Solennità della S. Lingua di S. Antonio in Padova (RV212).
Unsurprisingly, Brescianello dedicates the collection to his patron and employer Eberhard Ludwig, the Duke of Württemberg, famous for his passion for hunting. Having fought on the side of the Austrians against the French during the War of the Spanish Succession as field-marshal of the Swabian troops, it is natural that the music of his court looked south towards Italy rather than to France. That said, Eberhard was no stranger to the French style having visited Louis XIV at Versailles shortly before 1700; one wonders if this trip made a profound impression upon his artistic tastes, eventually inspiring Brescianello to compose a collection of 6 orchestral suites and a stand-alone chaconne in the French style. Like the other works in the set (apart from the D major suite that concludes with a massive Ciaconna) the A major suite is made up of a French overture followed by a suite of dances, finishing with a lively Giga or Gigue here cast in the guise of a Canarie, which according to the German theorist Johann Mattheson, was a sub-category of the Gigue.
The present recording concludes with an alternative slow movement to the fourth concerto of Brescianello’s Opus 1. This comes from a manuscript held in the Sächsische-Landesbibliothek, Dresden, and like a couple of the other concertos from the set, can be found in copies made by Johann Georg Pisendel, a violinist who was responsible for the survival of an eye-watering quantity of violin repertoire from this period.
One of the Pisendel manuscripts transcribes Brescianello’s outer movements faithfully but provides a different slow movement. Having examined this source only the week before our recording (mea culpa), I did not research the new movement in detail; given the race against time, it was enough that it would provide a fitting close to the project. Once in rehearsal however, it became clear that there was something slightly fishy about this work as the melody and bass felt incredibly Vivaldian whilst the inner parts smacked of something else.
The reason, I discovered later, was simple: rather like an unscrupulous second-hand car dealer might weld together two parts of a Ford Cortina with one of a Ford Capri, Pisendel has similarly created a musical crossbreed by inserting into Brescianello’s outer movements the slow movement from Vivaldi’s concerto in B flat, Il Carbonelli (RV366) transposed up a tone (interestingly, the sole source for this concerto is also in Pisendel’s hand) to which he (i.e. Pisendel) then added parts for violins and violas afresh. It might not be what Brescianello—or Vivaldi—had in mind, but it is remarkably effective as a piece of music.
Adrian Chandler © 2023