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Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (1629 - after 1679): Sonate violino solo opera quarta

Gunar Letzbor, violin
Ars Antiqua Austria

rec: March 14 - 16, 2010, Ivanka pri Dunaji (Slovakia), Castle
Arcana - A 360 ( 2011) (56'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I

Sonata I La Bernabea in e minor, op. 4,1; Sonata II La Viviana in a minor, op. 4,2; Sonata III La Monella (Romanesca) in g minor, op. 4,3; Sonata IV La Biancuccia in d minor, op. 4,4; Sonata V La Stella in d minor, op. 4,5; Sonata VI La Vinciolina in d minor, op. 4,6

Jan Krigovsky, violone; Daniel Oman, colascione; Pierre Pitzl, guitar; Hubert Hoffmann, archlute; Norbert Zeilberger, harpsichord, organ

Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli is one of those shadowy figures in music history. His music is much better known than its author. Until recently next to nothing was known about his life, not even the dates of his birth and death. But his music has received much attention, as it belongs to the very best of what was written for the violin in the 17th century. It is only recently that research by the music historian Fabrizio Longo has brought to light some facts which allow us to position Pandolfi Mealli in his time.

Pandolfi Mealli was born in 1629 in Montepulciano in Tuscany. Not long after his birth the family moved to Venice, where his stepbrother sang as a castrato in San Marco. In the 1650s Pandolfo Mealli - the latter name he took from his stepfather - entered the service of the Princess de' Medici in Innsbruck. He gave up his job in 1660, and after that we meet him again in 1669. In that year a publication of instrumental pieces was printed in Rome, and here he is mentioned as violinist in the chapel of the cathedral of Messina on Sicily. He left Messina after an incident in which he killed a castrato singer and fled to Spain. Here he started working as a violinist in the Capilla Real of Madrid. He must have died not long after 1679.

Only three collections of music from his pen are known. The most famous are the twelve sonatas which were published as his opp. 3 and 4 respectively, both comprising six sonatas. Nothing is known about an opus 1 or opus 2. These could have been lost or - as Andrew Manze in the liner-notes of his complete recording (Harmonia mundi, 1999) suggests - they have never existed, and the designation as opus 3 and opus 4 was a way to show off. The third collection is the one referred to above, but some musicologists have doubted whether the composer is identical with Pandolfi Mealli: they are much more moderate in style and the composer is only referred to as 'Pandolfi', without the addition of 'Mealli'. It seems, though, that the research of Fabrizio Longo rather confirms Mealli's authorship.

All sonatas of both collections bear names which mostly refer to musicians from his time, some of whom were Mealli's colleagues in Innsbruck. Whether these are intended as a kind of musical portraits is impossible to say. It could well be that by giving his sonatas a title which is derived from their names Pandolfi Mealli wanted to pay respect to his colleagues. The Sonata I La Bernabea is probably dedicated to Ercole Bernabei, who worked as an organist in Rome, the city where this opus was printed. Antonio Maria Viviani is the dedicatee of the Sonata II La Viviana. He was an organist, singer and composer. In Innsbruck he acted as organist, chaplain and secretary of the Archduke and became superintendant of chamber music in 1660. Sonata III La Monella is dedicated to the alto castrato Filippo Bompaglia, nicknamed 'Monello'. Before and after his time in Innsbruck he sang in operas in Rome and Venice. This sonata is based on a famous basso ostinato, called Romanesca.

Another castrato is the dedicatee of the Sonata IV La Biancuccia: Giovanni Giacomo Biancucci. The Sonata V La Stella is not dedicated to a musician, but rather a clergyman: the Father Superior of the Cistercian monastery of San Giovanni Battista in Perugia, Benedetto Stella. The fact that the opus 3 also contains a sonata dedicated to him suggests Stella was important to Pandolfi Mealli. The title of Sonata VI La Vinciolina refers to a lady with the name of Teodora Vincioli. Her identity hasn't yet been established.

These sonatas are not only remarkable for their technical qualities, but also on account of their character. By using various playing techniques and daring harmony Pandolfi Mealli reaches a great amount of expression. The sonatas consist of various sections of a strongly contrasting character, and as a result they have a clear dramatic trait. In his performance Gunar Letzbor aims at exploring this feature of the sonatas. He takes the slow movements at an often very slow pace, whereas the fast movements are mostly played at high speed. He also tries to maximize the often sudden shift from slow to fast. That is all praiseworthy, and makes his interpretation quite compelling. Unfortunately he tends to go a little overboard. The first movement of the Sonata III is an extreme example. The first section takes no less than 11'18" - Manze needs just 6:33 for the whole sonata. Letzbor's basic tempo is very slow, and there is no variation in pace within this first section. In comparison Manze creates strong contrasts by playing the written-out trills of demisemiquavers much faster just like the passage with triplets. I find that more convincing than Letzbor's performance which seems unnaturally slow. There are also quite long pauses between the sub-sections, and the passages for the basso continuo alone are overstretched.

Because of the contrast which Letzbor wants to create he uses various combinations of instruments in the basso continuo. That makes sense, but I don't think the scoring of the bass part needs to change within a sonata. It is even perfectly possible to realise these contrasts with just one instrument in the basso continuo. Manze's recording proves this - with Richard Egarr on the harpsichord - but also Martha Moore (Syncoop, 1992), who is accompanied by a theorbo (played by Joris Loeff). The dynamic outbursts in the continuo, in particular if the archlute and the guitar are used as percussion instruments, seem exaggerated.

The playing of Gunar Letzbor is admirable, and in many ways I prefer his performance of the violin part to Manze's. That said I find it hard unequivocally to recommend his recording because of the exaggerations in the tempi and the realization of the basso continuo. The liner-notes contain the latest information about the composer as well as an analysis of the six sonatas by Herbert Seifert, who teaches musicology at Vienna University. Interesting are also the 'Observations from the podium' by Gunar Letzbor.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

Ars Antiqua Austria

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