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"Il labirinto della chitarra - Guitar music from 17th-century Italy"

Private Musicke
Dir: Pierre Pitzl

rec: Nov 18 - 20, 2010, St Pölten, Bischöfliches Palais
Accent - ACC 24239 (© 2008) (66'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Carlo CALVI (17th C): Canario; Espanoletta; Francesco CORBETTA (c1615-1681): Allemanda; Balletto fatto nella Bariera sopra la Sala di Bologna; Caprice de Chacone; 2 Correntes; Folia; Preludio; Sarabanda I; Sarabanda II; Sinfonia; Sua Corrente; Giovanni Paolo FOSCARINI (?-c1650): Ciacona; Corrente; Passacaglia; Giovanni Battista GRANATA (1620?-1687?): Allemanda; Passacaglia; Tocatta; Nicola MATTEIS (?-after 1713): Aria I; Aria II; Preludio; Domenico PELLEGRINI (17th C): Brando; Corrente; Gaspar SANZ (1640-1710): Canarios; Matachin; Paradetas; Sarabanda; Tarantella; Ferdinando VALDAMBRINI (1623-c1690): Capona

Pierre Pitzl, Hugh Sandilands, Daniel Pilz, Christopher Dickey, guitar; Daniel Oman, colascione; Jesús Fernandez Baena, theorbo; Leonardo Massa, cello; David Mayoral, percussion

The guitar does not play a central role at the modern classical music scene, certainly not in comparison with the piano or the violin. There are many celebrated players of these instruments who perform with the major orchestras, but how often does a guitarist take centre stage? Among amateurs the guitar is a very popular instrument, though. But they probably play mostly popular tunes rather than classical music. In fact this is in line with the first stages in the development of the guitar. The 5-course guitar, known as guitarra spagnuola, came to Italy at the end of the 16th century and soon became so popular that it developed into serious competition for the lute. "In the first half of the 17th century there were already over 100 publications with guitar music. Perhaps its instant popularity was due to the fact that it was easy for a beginner to play. A notation system known as alfabeto or 'Italian alphabet' was quickly developed. With the Italian alphabet, even an amateur who couln't read music was able to play easy dances and accompany songs", the liner-notes say.

In the early days of historical performance practice the guitar wasn't taken really seriously. The late James Tyler played a crucial role in the rediscovery of the guitar of the renaissance and the baroque, through his research and writings and his own performances and recordings. Today the guitar regularly turns up in performances of early music both in a solo role and in the basso continuo. It has to be said, though, that its growing popularity has led to less plausible appearances. It seems out of place in performances of North-German repertoire, for instance, like in a disc with cantatas by Buxtehude by the Lautten Compagney Berlin. It is however pleasing that the number of early music recordings with music for guitar is growing.

The present disc also bears witness to the trend of playing guitar music with additional instruments, like a string bass, another plucked instrument or percussion. The documentation of this disc falls short in telling us about the original scoring of the pieces on the programme. From the liner-notes I gather that all of them - or at least the large majority - were written for just one guitar. The question is why so few of them are performed with one guitar. The liner-notes state that it is an instrument which invites to improvise, also because the notation of many pieces is rather sketchy. That may be true, and there is no objection against a guitarist using his own - historically informed - imagination in working out such pieces. But it escapes me why such improvisations should be a license to add instruments at will.

The liner-notes are a bit confusing in this respect. In the English version it is stated that there is documentary evidence of Francesco Corbetta travelling with an accompanying instrumental ensemble and that this has "moved us to perform several solo pieces as chamber music". Strangely enough there is no reference to this in the German liner-notes which seem to be the original. So, what exactly has happened here? Has the translator added something of his own? Talking about the liner-notes, I am just wondering who wrote them. The name of the author is given as Asher Middwoch. My search on the internet was fruitless. I suspect that this could be a pseudonym, probably of Pierre Pitzl? In German Aschermittwoch means Ash Wednesday and Middwoch is the Bavarian version of Mittwoch. So is this a little joke?

Returning to the subject of ensemble performances, the very fact that Corbetta performed with an ensemble tells us nothing about the type of instruments which accompanied him. And what about the other composers on this disc? For instance, the guitar is accompanied by the theorbo in various pieces - was this common practice at the time? And what exactly was the role of the percussion? Was it used with the guitar, and if so, when and where? This takes us to the question where exactly pieces like those recorded here were performed: in the homes of private persons or in public, or at the court of aristocrats or in royal palaces?

Most of the music on this disc is written in the so-called mixed style, a mixture of strummed (rasgueado) and plucked (punteado) techniques. A notation system for this style was also developed. The result was an increase in virtuosity and much experiments in regard to harmony. All the composers on this disc were guitar players themselves. The best-known are Gaspar Sanz - his famous Canarios is almost always included in performances of guitar music - and Francesco Corbetta. The latter was guitar teacher of Louis XIV of France, which is an indication that the guitar also developed into an instrument of the upper classes. He later went to England with Charles II. Probably the first composer to adopt the mixed style was Giovanni Paolo Foscarini, who also moved in aristocratic circles. Sanz, on the other hand, switches between the two styles. He appears in a programme with Italian music because he studied in Naples and his compositions show Italian influences.

There are also some little-known names. About some of them hardly anything is known, like Carlo Calvi and Domenico Pellegrini. One of the most eccentric composers is Giovanni Battista Granata, a pupil of Corbetta. He left no fewer than seven books with pieces for the guitar. Ferdinando Valdambrini left some compositions which even guitarists don't understand.

In the light of my criticism I should hasten to add that musically speaking this is a fine disc. The music is great and often intriguing and the performances are excellent. Even so, I would have liked it more if the guitar pieces had been played with a guitar alone. If a performer decides to play these works as ensemble pieces, he should try to explain why he does so and how he has come to his decisions in regard to the scoring.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Private Musicke

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