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Attilio ARIOSTI (1666 - 1729): "The Stockholm Sonatas"

Thomas Georgi, viola d'amore; Joëlle Mortona, viola da gamba, great bass viol; Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann, cellobc; Lucas Harris, theorboa, archlute, guitar; Emma Kirkby, sopranoc

rec: May 2005, Toronto, Ont. (Can), Grace Church on the Hilla; Jan 2006b & August 2007c, Länna Kyrkan (Sweden)
BIS - CD-1535a (© 2006) (69'14"); CD-1555b (© 2007) (56'33"); CD-1675c (© 2008) (63'57")

[Vol. 1] Lezione I in E flat [1]; Lezione II in A [1]; Lezione III in e minor [1]; Lezione IV in F [1]; Lezione V in e minor [1]; Sonata 6 in D [1/2]; Sonata 7 in D [1/2]
[Vol. 2] Sonata No 8 in d minor [2]; Sonata No 9 in g minor [2]; Sonata No 10 in F [2]; Sonata No 11 in a minor [2]; Sonata No 12 in e minor [2]; Sonata No 13 in C [2]; Sonata No 14 in E flat [2]
[Vol. 3] Pur alfin gentil viola, cantata; Sonata No 15 in f minor [2]; Sonata No 16 in G [2]; Sonata No 17 in B flat [2]; Sonata No 18 in d minor [2]; Sonata No 19 in a minor [2]; Sonata No 20 in g minor [2]; Sonata No 21 in a minor [2]

(Sources: [1] Cantatas and a Collection of Lessons for the Viol d'amour, 1724; [2] Recueil de Pièces pour la Viol d'Amour, ms, n.d.)

In the great sweep of music history some instruments emerge and then disappear after a short while. Good examples are the baryton and the arpeggione. Nobody would know about the former if Haydn hadn't felt the need to provide his employer with suitable music for an instrument he happened to love. And apart from the sonata by Schubert nothing substantial has ever been composed for the arpeggione, and that instrument has disappeared in the fog of history.

The viola d'amore has fared a little better, even though it was never a really main-stream instrument. It was mentioned for the first time by the English author John Evelyn: "I dind at the Master of the Mints with my wife, invited to heare Musique which was most exquisitely performed by 4 of the most renouned Masters, DuPrue a French-man on the Lute: Signor Batholomeo Ital: on the Harpsichord: & Nicolao on the Violin: but above all for its swetenesse & novelty the Viol d'Amore of 5 wyre-strings, plaied on with a bow, being but an ordinary Violin, play'd on Lyra way by a German, than which I never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing…"

The viola d'amore was especially popular in Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Italy from the late 17th century to the end of the 18th century. Several authors are mentioning the instrument, like Johann Mattheson and Leopold Mozart. Like John Evelyn they describe the instrument as sweet and languishing, and Johann Mattheson regretted that it wasn't more often used. He himself wrote parts for the viola d'amore in two of his operas, and other composers also used it in dramatic works, both sacred and secular, like Antonio Vivaldi in his oratorio Juditha triumphans. One of the best-known composers for the viola d'amore was Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Johann Sebastian Bach used it in several of his cantatas and in the St John Passion. It also appeared in Passions by Telemann and Stölzel. In the 19th century it was seldom used. The 20th century has seen a kind of revival. But it has never risen to the status of being part of the symphony orchestra. Today it is mostly used in the performances of early music, but the number of recordings with music for the viola d'amore is rather small.

The instrument has seven playing strings which cross the top of the bridge, and seven sympathetic or resonating strings, which run through the bridge and under the fingerboard. In fact, over the years, there has been some variation in its appearance. It seems the viola d'amore with sympathetic strings was mostly used in the 18th century, whereas they are largely absent from 17th-century instruments. But in the booklet Thomas Georgi quotes Kai Koepp, who has done much research into the history of the viola d'amore and who thinks both instruments were used side by side. "It seems that the use of sympathetic strings depended on the financial and socio-cultural situation of the individual player".

One of the peculiarities of the viola d'amore is that it can be tuned in many different ways. Usually it is tuned in the key of the piece which is to be played. This is called scordatura and was in particular used by Biber. This causes some trouble for the interpreter and makes a project like this a time-consuming and exhausting undertaking.

In the booklets Thomas Georgi explains at length the problems he faced and how he surmounted them. This is partly pretty technical and therefore I leave it to those readers with a more than average interest in these matters. It is interesting to read, though, how he approached the material, for instance in regard to the choice of instruments and pitch. In addition he writes about his application of ornaments and certain liberties he has taken in the interpretation.

It is time to say something about the composer, probably just as shadowy as the viola d'amore. Attilio Ariosti, an Italian composer of the generation of Alessandro Scarlatti, was born in Bologna, and ordained as a priest. His first compositions were oratorios, but after composing his first opera in 1697 he concentrated on writing music for the theatre. A year before he had entered the service of the Duke of Mantua, who sent him to Berlin to the court of Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg, he was appointed maître de musique and became Sophie Charlotte's favourite musician. Later on he worked at the Imperial court in Vienna, where he was held in high esteem by Joseph I. For him he worked as a diplomat in Italy, and after Joseph's death entered the service of the Duke of Anjou, the future French king Louis XV. As a result of his many activities as a diplomat, but also as a music teacher and an interpreter - he was a singer and played the keyboard, the cello and the viola d'amore - his output is rather limited in comparison to that of some of his more famous contemporaries.

Ariosti spent the last stage of his life in England, where he arrived in July 1716. He played in public on the viola d'amore, and composed some operas. His first opera in England was Tito Manlio, first performed in 1717. It made such an impression that the Royal Academy of Music commissioned another opera from him. From 1722 to 1728 he was one of the composers employed by the Royal Academy, alongside Handel and Bononcini. He died in London in 1729.

In 1724 Ariosti published a number of sonatas for viola d'amore in London, under the title Cantatas and a Collection of Lessons for the Viol d'amour. It is remarkable that Ariosti immediately adapted them for the violin. He reckoned - and rightly so - that the viola d'amore wasn't much played in England, and certainly not by amateurs, the kind of people his collection was aiming at. The fact that Georgi is able to play them in their original form is due to the fact that these sonatas were copied by the Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman. This is entitled Recueil de Pièces pour la Viol d'Amour. The Lessons appear in both sources which means that they are available in real and in scordatura notation. For these the original description as Lessons (Lezioni) has been preserved, although all pieces are sonatas, consisting of either three or four movements. In total there are 21 lessons or sonatas for viola d'amore and bc; they are the largest single set of works for this instrument of the baroque period.

It is crystal clear that this project is very important for historical reasons. There are not that many recordings which are devoted to the viola d'amore, and only a small number of pieces, in particular some compositions by Biber and the eight solo concertos by Vivaldi, are recorded now and then. To many-music lovers Attilio Ariosti is an unknown quantity, and there is little chance that they have ever heard these sonatas. But it isn't just for historical reasons that these discs are worthwhile. The music is versatile and captivating. The sonatas contain strongly contrasting movements. Many slow movements show great depth of expression, for instance the sarabandes. The Lezione II in A (Vol. 1) contains two slow movements: cantabile (grave) and sarabande (adagio), two really moving pieces. The Sonata No 8 in d minor (Vol. 2) begins with two equally touching movements, largo and adagio. In some sonatas Ariosti includes sudden general pauses which creates a dramatic tension, like in the 'air en rondeau' of Sonata No 11 in a minor (Vol. 2) and in the adagio of the Sonata No 15 in f minor (Vol. 3).

But Ariosti has another side as well. In particular the gigas (Vol. 1) are delightful, often witty, with jaunty rhythms. The Sonata 7 in D (Vol. 1) is a good example of a piece where we meet both aspects of Ariosti's music: the third movement is an adagio of great expressive depth, the last movement a jolly giga, in which the phrases of the viola d'amore are time and again echoed by the basso continuo.

It is not only the variety in the sonatas which makes one enjoy these discs, it is also the performances. Thomas Georgi really impresses with his impeccable technique and great sensitivity in the realisation of the very different kinds of sonatas and movements. It also helps that he uses various instruments - three in total, two with sympathetic strings and one without. In addition he plays them in either soprano pitch or alto pitch, both commonly used pitches at the viola d'amore in Ariosti's days. In the basso continuo Lucas Harris plays the theorbo, the archlute and the guitar. The latter is especially used to great effect in the gigas. Joëlle Morton and Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann give excellent support on their respective string bass instruments.

The third disc offers a chamber cantata - a genre which was very popular in the early 18th century. It is no coincidence that this cantata is chosen: the flowers "proclaim as queen of the meadow the gentle violet (viola in Italian) who inspires love" rather than the arrogant rose who wants to rule with cruelty, "by means of blood". As Thomas Georgi writes: "the violet survives, as Ariosti must have hoped, and as long as human curiosity and spirit of invention survive as well, so will the viola d'amore". The soprano and the viola d'amore are treated as equals: the two arias - which embrace a recitative - begin with an introduction for the viola d'amore after which the soprano comes in. Emma Kirkby gives a very good performance, with beautiful and tasteful ornamentation, and blends well with the viola d'amore.

This project just has it all: a rather uncommon instrument with an intriguing, beautiful and - indeed - sweet sound, music of excellent quality and great variety, outstanding performances, and booklets which contain all the information one needs in order to understand the repertoire and the instrument. Thomas Georgi also has a website which aims at promoting the viola d'amore which is well worth visiting. The record company also deserves much praise for giving Thomas Georgi the opportunity to realise this project and for the impeccable recording and production.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

The Hidden World of the Viola d'Amore

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