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CD reviews

Music for mandolin

[I] "Italian Sonatas"
Duilio Galfetti, mandolin; Luca Pianca, archlute, theorbo
rec: Oct 2011, Lugano, RSI (Auditorio Stelio Molo)
Passacaille - 1010 (© 2015) (57'27")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover &, track-list

anon, arr Filippo DALLA CASA (1736-after 1811): 2 Graves; Carlo ARRIGONI (1697-1744): Sonata à Mandolino e Basso in e minor; Ludovico FONTANELLI (c1682-1748), arr Filippo DALLA CASA: Sonata; Giovanni Battista GERVASIO (c1725-c1785): Sonata a mandolino solo e Basso in D; Francesco PICCONE (c1685-c1745): Sinfonia per la mandola in d minor; Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700/01-1775): Sonata per Armandolino in G; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in g minor (K 88);

[II] Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 - 1757): "Mandolin Sonatas"
rec: August 2012, Mont-Saint-Martin, Longwy, Eglise Romane
Brilliant Classics - 94477 (© 2013) (47'10")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata in d minor (K 77); Sonata in d minor (K 89); Sonata in d minor (K 90); Sonata in e minor (K 81); Sonata in G (K 91); Sonata in g minor (K 88)

Mari Fe Pavón, mandolin; Jean-Daniel Haro, viola da gamba; Manuel Muñoz, guitar; Jean-Christophe Leclère, harpsichord

[III] "Avi Avital Vivaldi"
Avi Avital, mandolin
Juan Diego Flórez, tenorc; Daniele Bovoc, Patrick Sepecb, cello; Ivano Zanenghic, Ophira Zakaib, lute; Fabio Tricomi, guitarc; Mahan Esfahanib, Lorenzo Federc, harpsichord
Venice Baroque Orchestraa
rec: Sept & Oct 2014, Treviso, Teatro delle Vocia; Dec 2014, Berlin, Meistersaalb
DGG - 479 4017 (© 2015) (51'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

trad (Venice): La biondina in gondoletac; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for flautino, strings and bc in C (RV 443) (largo)a; Concerto for lute, 2 violins and bc in D (RV 93)a; Concerto for mandolin, strings and bc in C (RV 425)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'estate' (RV 315)b; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor, op. 3,6 (RV 356)a; Sonata for violin, lute and bc in C (RV 82)b

There is evidence that the mandolin played quite an important role in the music scene from the renaissance until the early 19th century. That is in strong contrast to our time, where its role is only marginal.

The first time the instrument makes its appearance is the late 16th century. It was called mandola; about half a century later its diminutive mandolino turns up. These two terms were used simultaneously until well into the 18th century. The instrument was also known under names such as liutino or liuto soprano. This indicates that the mandolin is derived from the lute.

The mandolin had four to six courses of mostly double gut strings and was plucked with the fingers of the right hand until the late 18th century. In the mid-18th century the Neapolitan mandolin emerged. It had metal strings and was played with a plectrum. This way it could produce a louder sound, and in order to compete with the new instrument the players of the mandola also started to use a plectrum.

From the late 17th century the mandolin was frequently used, in cantatas, operas and oratorios, by composers such as Vivaldi, Conti, Gasparini and Hasse. Hasse and Vivaldi composed concertos for the mandolin; Conti, Caldara and Giovanni Battista Sammartini are among the composers of sonatas for mandolin and basso continuo. The latter is represented in the programme which Duilio Galfetti put together.

Sammartini is only one of the two composers who are well known. Francesco Piccone has no entry in New Grove and the liner-notes don't give us any information about him. Carlo Arrigoni was from Florence and educated as a lute and theorbo player; he also played the violin. In the early 1730s he was in London and was associated with the Opera of the Nobility. His oeuvre is small and includes one concerto and three sonatas for the mandolin. The Sonata in e minor is in four movements; the first is called arpeggio. Giovanni Battista Gervasio is also a rather unknown quantity who has no entry in New Grove. In 1767 he published a treatise on mandolin playing. His Sonata in D is the most virtuosic piece in the programme. The last movement ends with an episode in which Dalfetti uses the technique of strumming, known from guitar playing.

A special case is Domenico Scarlatti. Although often treated as keyboard pieces eight sonatas are in fact scored for a melody instrument and bc. They are often played on the violin, but there are also other suggestions. Valerio Losito played some of them on the viola d'amore; he even thinks that the Sonata in g minor (K 88) was exclusively written for it. Galfetti has other ideas: "[The] structure of some of the chords (...) excludes the violin - and consequently also the Neapolitan mandolin, which did not yet exist. Also the key of G-minor, (...) perfectly appropriate to the instrument, forces us to opt for the treble lute".

The same sonata also appears on the disc which the Ensemble Artemandoline devoted to Domenico Scarlatti. In addition we hear five further sonatas from the eight which seem to be intended for a melody instrument and bc. In the booklet Ugo Orlandini goes into more detail about these sonatas. Five of them (the exception is K 77) have in common is that they are in four movements - unlike the sonatas which are definitely for harpsichord - and have a right-hand part with a melodic character whereas the bass part is figured. Many scholars believe that the right hand part was intended for the violin, probably with the exception of K 88 which poses some problems for that instrument.

"[We] propose that these five sonatas might have been written for the mandolin". He refers to a document which has been found in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris. It contains the first movement of the Sonata K 89, entitled Sonatina per mandolino e cimbalo. He correctly avoids claiming that this "constitutes irrefutable proof that all sonatas with figured bass dy Domenico Scarlatti were written for mandolin; we merely wish to effect new possibilities of interpretation for these works". It is also mentioned that at about the same time as these sonatas seem to have been written many collections of music with mandolin parts were published.

The two recordings of the Sonata K 88 allow a direct comparison between the interpretations. I enjoyed both of them, but Galfetti is a little too restrained in regard to ornamentation; from this angle I prefer Artemandoline. In this sonata both use the mandola, but in the other sonatas Artemandoline uses the Neapolitan mandolin. Historically speaking that is not the most appropriate instrument as we already have seen, but to my relatively unexperienced ears - as far as the mandolin is concerned - the difference is not spectacular. It didn't spoil my enjoyment or diminish my appreciation of Artemandoline's interpretation.

Both discs are interesting: Galfetti includes pieces by composers who are hardly known and an unknown work by a rather well-known composer (Sammartini) whereas Artemandoline sheds new light on various sonatas by Scarlatti. Because of that both discs are worthwhile additions to the discography.

That is not the case with the third disc. The main reason is not that it is (almost) completely devoted to Vivaldi or that most of the concertos and sonatas are arranged for mandolin, but the way they are played and the instrument Avi Avital uses.

Arranging music for a different instrument was common practice in the baroque era. Vivaldi himself did so frequently: several of his bassoon concertos, for instance, were later reworked for oboe. What is important is whether the arrangements are well made and whether the character of the original is preserved. Obviously it is more plausible to arrange a lute concerto for mandolin than a violin concerto. That shows here: the Concerto in a minor, op. 3,6 doesn't come off very well, but the arrangement of the Concerto in g minor, the 'Summer' from the Four Seasons is pretty disastrous. The effects which Vivaldi has written into the violin solo part are impossible to realise on the mandolin. The character of the Trio in C (RV 82) also fundamentally changes. It is originally scored for violin and lute which creates a nice contrast between a strung and a plucked instrument. Here the mandolin takes the violin part and as a result the contrast disappears.

The same is the case in the Concerto for mandolin in C (RV 425), not because anything was changed in the scoring, but because in the ritornellos the strings play exclusively pizzicato. As a result this piece changes into a work for a plucked orchestra. It is just one example of the eccentricities which mar this disc.

Avi Avital is certainly a good mandolin player but his performances have little to do with historical performance practice. His playing is rather straightforward and not very differentiated in the baroque sense of the word. It doesn't surprise that he seems to play a modern instrument. The booklet says that it was made by Arik Kerman in 1998; there is no mention of a historical model.

I find it rather surprising that an excellent ensemble like the Venice Baroque Orchestra was willing to get involved in this project. The booklet doesn't specify the names of the players. I can understand that: if I were a member of the ensemble and couldn't avoid participating in this recording I wouldn't like to see my name in the booklet either. As so often is the case in a cooperation between a baroque orchestra and a mainstream soloist, Avital lowers the orchestra to his level - not technically, but stylistically. The opening ritornello from the 'Summer' concerto ends with a strong crescendo which is utterly unstylish.

If a disc with baroque music is released on DGG rather than Archiv and the name of the artist on the cover is as big as the composer's you just know that something is wrong. That the liner-notes - under the title "Rocking Vivaldi" - are all about Avital fits into the picture.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Avi Avital
Venice Baroque Orchestra

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