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Francesco GEMINIANI (1687 - 1762): Sonatas for cello and bc op. 5

Jaap ter Linden, cello; Judith-Maria Becker, cello [bc]; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord

rec: April 2007, Rhoon (Neth), NH Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 93646 (54'32")

Sonata in A, op. 5,1; Sonata in d minor, op. 5,2; Sonata in C, op. 5,3; Sonata in B flat, op. 5,4; Sonata in F, op. 5,5; Sonata in a minor, op. 5,6

Francesco Geminiani was one of the greatest violinists of his time, an important theorist and a composer of considerable reputation. The main part of his oeuvre consists of music for his own instrument and concerti grossi. His six sonatas for cello and basso continuo are a kind of Fremdkörper in his output.

Geminiani was born in Lucca, and - as so many of his contemporaries - received his first musical education from his father, who was a violinist in the Cappella Palatina there. It is not certain who his main teachers were, but in several sources Arcangelo Corelli is mentioned, alongside with Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Ambrogio Lonati. It is certain, though, that Corelli had a lasting influence on Geminiani. His whole life he held Corelli in high esteem, as his concerti grossi after Corelli's sonatas opus 5 show. He also had been in close contact with Corelli. In the foreword to A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, which was published in 1749, he refers to discussions with Corelli about his music.
In 1714 he left Italy for England, probably because he didn't see any real chances of a career either in Rome or in Naples, where he spent some time. And as England had attracted other musicians from Italy before it was a logical choice to try to find employment over there. Here he found a fertile soil: admiration for Italy and the Italian music was widespread, and there were ample opportunities to perform and to teach. In England Geminiani found his first patron in the person of Baron Johann Adolf Kielmannsegg. It was he who arranged a public performance in attendance of the king, in which Geminiani was accompanied by Handel at the harpsichord. It was also Kielmannsegg to whom Geminiani dedicated his 12 Sonatas for violin and bc opus 1. This collection had a considerable success, and as they were stylistically close to Corelli he could rightfully present himself as Corelli's pupil.

From 1732 until his death in 1762 he travelled through several countries. He stayed a considerable time in Ireland, but also went to Italy and France. It was in Paris where his Sonatas for cello and bc opus 5 were published. It isn't known whether he had a specific player in mind, but that they were published in Paris was very appropriate. France had long resisted the influence of Italian music, but around 1700 more and more composers had started to aim at a mixture of French and Italian elements. During the first half of the 18th century, though, the Italian influence gradually overshadowed the traditional French style. One of the effects was that the viola da gamba was put into the sidelines by the Italian cello. The growing popularity of this instrument must have encouraged Geminiani to compose his six sonatas. At about the same time a transcription of these sonatas for violin and bc was published in The Hague.

Five of the six sonatas are in four movements, following the traditional pattern of slow - fast - slow - fast. Only the sixth is in three movements: slow - fast - fast, but the second movement ends with a slow cadence-like passage which leads to the closing movement. Therefore one could argue that this sonata has four movements as well.
The sonatas contain some influences of the French style, in particular of the music for viola da gamba. A striking example is the second section of the last movement of the Sonata No 6. It is in slow tempo, and very much reminds me of the French tombeau. It is not specifically the fact that these sonatas were published in Paris which caused this inclusion of French elements as these are already present in the Sonatas for violin and bc opus 4 of 1739, a year before he went to France for the first time.

These sonatas show that Geminiani is a master in creating thematic material which keeps ringing in one's ears. Good examples are the fast movements of the sonatas 2 and 3. I first heard them in a recording by Anthony Pleeth and Christopher Hogwood, and I've never forgotten them since. So it was a joy to hear them again, and in addition some very expressive slow movements, like the affetuoso from the Sonata No 3. Sonata No 4 is characterised by strong gestures: the opening andante consists of some sweeping statements, which are followed-up in the next movement. The Sonata No 6 is in many ways the most intriguing of them all: the first very short slow movement is followed by the most dramatic movement of the set, ending - as mentioned before - in a slow transitional section, after which the last movement begins in fast tempo, only to switch to a slow tempo halfway. Just before the end the movement returns to its original tempo.

Jaap ter Linden is one of the world's best-known and most accomplished players of the baroque cello. I sometimes find his approach a bit too smooth, one of the reasons I'm not very impressed by his recordings of Bach's suites for cello solo. And in this recording there were some movements where I had liked a bit sharper articulation and more dynamic contrasts. But all in all I am very happy with his performances: there is much to enjoy, and he explores the expressive side of this set very well. Lars Ulrik Mortensen delivers a full-blooded realisation of the basso continuo, appropriately supported by Judith-Maria Becker, a former pupil of Jaap ter Linden.
As this is a budget-price release one can hardly go wrong with this disc. The music is first-class, the sound of the cello - an instrument from 1703 - is gorgeous, and the interpretation captivating.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Jaap ter Linden

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