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Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 - 1770): "Cantabile e suonabile"

David Plantier, violin; Annabelle Luis, celloa

rec: June 17 - 20, 2014, Courtomer, Eglise Sainte Geneviève
Agogique - AGO020 (© 2015) (68'15")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Sonata II in d minor (Brainard d1)a; Sonata VIII in g minor (Brainard g1)a; Sonata XXV in d minor (Brainard d2); Sonata [XXVIII] in A (Brainard A2); Sonata [XXX] in d minor (Brainard d3); Sonata [XXXI] in e minor (Brainard e3)

In the 1720s and 1730s the musical climate in Europe started to change. There was a growing unease with the extremities in some departments, for instance in opera and in instrumental virtuosity. In 1720 Benedetto Marcello published his book Il teatro alla moda in which he sharply criticised the 'bad habits' in contemporary theatre. Georg Philipp Telemann preferred the French style over the Italian because the latter included too much virtuosity for its own sake. His friend and colleague Johann Georg Pisendel admired Vivaldi but was critical about the latest fruits from his pen and generally about what was written at that time, the late 1730s. Another composer who was highly critical of Vivaldi's escapades on the violin was Giuseppe Tartini. Like Telemann he criticised virtuosity as a quality in itself which he especially observed in Vivaldi's treatment of the violin.

There was a longing for a more 'natural' style, away from pyrotechnics for their own sake. Tartini himself put it this way: "I am at home as much as I can be with Nature, and as little as possible with Art, having no other Art than the imitation of Nature". Whereas Tartini was one of the advocates of a more natural style of playing, somewhat later the German composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck propagated the same ideals in opera. At the same time counterpoint was replaced by melody as the foundation of music. In Germany Johann Mattheson was one of the main advocates of this view. Tartini has become mainly known for his violin concertos and these are largely devoid of counterpoint. His criticism of virtuosity doesn't imply that he completely eschewed it. His music proves otherwise. Moreover, when he heard Francesco Maria Veracini play he realised that he couldn't stand in his shadow and withdrew from the concert scene. He concentrated on improving his skills and only then started to play and compose again.

Today his compositions are still more or less in the shadow of Vivaldi's. The catalogue includes just one complete recording of his violin concertos, only a relatively small part of his violin sonatas are known - especially the one with the nickname 'Devil's trill' - and the pieces which are the subject of the present disc are largely unknown. That is all the more surprising as they represent the largest number of compositions for violin solo without accompaniment of a basso continuo or a keyboard in history. Tartini himself called them piccole sonate (little sonatas); he composed 26 of them. It is not known when they have been written but some of them date from before 1750.

Most of the sonatas are in four movements but there is little that alludes to Corelli's sonatas which for a long time served as models for composers across Europe. The Sonata in A, for instance, opens with an adagio which is followed by two fast movements (allegro and presto) and closes with a giga. The opening movement has a title: 'La mia filli'. Tartini often gave movements from his sonatas and concertos a title which reflect his strong interest in literature. However, these titles have no programmatic function; they merely refer to what inspired Tartini while composing those movements. Their meaning is not revealed to the listener, also because we don't know from which literary works these titles are taken.

Like in his concertos the most frequent character indication for the slower movements is andante. This refers to a moderate tempo, something between fast and slow, and matches Tartini's general preference for cantabile playing which several movements explicitly refer to. It is the character indication of the first movement from the Sonata XXX in d minor. The Sonata XXV in d minor opens with an andante cantabile and the Sonata XXXI in e minor with an aria cantabile. Another indication which regularly returns is affettuoso: the third movement from the Sonata VIII in g minor bears this title and the Sonata II in d minor closes with an allegro affettuoso. Virtuosity can be mostly found in the fast movements. In a letter to one of his students Tartini refers to "the foundations of his teaching, and in particular the mastering of the bow technique designed to create an 'o sonabile, o cantabile' play, hence either instrumental or vocal", Jean-Christophe Pucek states in his liner-notes. Both aspects come to the fore in these sonatas. A feature of Tartini's virtuosity is his use of double stopping.

The latter suggests an important role of counterpoint but in his notes David Plantier emphasizes the difference between Tartini and, for instance, Bach. "According to the aesthetics of his time Tartini forgoes the counterpoint while sublimating its melodic side. Polyphony, discreet but present, keeps with the exclusive function of support to the song. He focuses on the substance of music itself, its capacity to move, its power to evoke, as only the greatest geniuses have been able to do." We see here clear similarities with the aesthetic ideals of someone like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who wrote that the performer should be moved himself in order to move his audience.

The sonatas bear witness to Tartini's aesthetic credo. Every movement is full of expression, not only the slower but also the faster movements. The very first track of this disc, the andante cantabile which opens the Sonata XXV is a sign of what is to come. There is no need to single out specific movements or sonatas but if you have the chance to listen to an extract you should take the Sonata XXVIII which includes all the features mentioned above.

In two sonatas we hear a cello playing the bass line. In a letter Tartini explained that he added a bassetto "out of convention" but "I myself play them without bass and such is my true intention". Plantier writes that the bass lines show that they were written "without particular care". He decided to perform the two sonatas with bass in the programme with cello alone. He calls this option "a true novelty" but that seems questionable. Many sonatas of the baroque era mention that the basso continuo should be played by a string bass or a keyboard. This is generally interpreted as a combination of both but that is not necessarily correct. Anyway, it is interesting to hear these two sonatas that way, and it is remarkable that this results in strong dissonances between violin and bass in the opening movement of the Sonata II in d minor.

The wonderful flow which is a feature of these sonatas is impressively conveyed by David Plantier. His breathing style of playing with subtle dynamic shading does full justice to the lyrical and poetical qualities of Tartini's sonatas. In the giga which closes the Sonata XXVIII he shows a strong sense of rhythm which makes the piece really dance.

This is one of the best Tartini discs I have heard in recent years. If you love violin music, don't miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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