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CD reviews

Chamber music with mandolin

[I] Roberto VALENTINI (c1674 - 1747): "Complete mandolin sonatas"
Pizzicar Galante
rec: Oct 17 - 21, 2015, Montevecchio di Pergola, Chiesa di San Giuseppe
Brilliant Classics - 95257 (© 2016) (73'23")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Valentini

Pietro Giuseppe Gaetano BONI (fl 1st half 18th C): Sonata in A, op. 2,1; Sonata in d minor, op. 2,2; Sonata in D, op. 2,9; Roberto VALENTINI (Robert VALENTINE): Sonata in A, op. 12,1; Sonata in d minor, op. 12,2; Sonata in G, op. 12,3; Sonata in g minor, op. 12,4; Sonata in e minor, op. 12,5; Sonata in D, op. 12,6

Sources: Pietro Giuseppe Gaetano Boni, Divertimenti per camera a violino, violone, cimbalo, flauto e mandola, op. 2, c1725; Roberto Valentini, Sonate per il flauto traversiero, col basso che possono servire per violino, mandola, et oboe, op. 12, 1730

Anna Schivazappa, mandolin; Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba; Daniel de Morais, theorbo; Fabio Antonio Falcone, harpsichord

[II] "The Violin & the Mandolin: Accomplices and Rivals"
Ensemble Baschenis
rec: March 2007a & March 2010b, Barnareggio (MI), Bartok Studio
Concerto - 2013 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (78'23")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Giovanni (Johann) H.A. HOFFMANN (1770-1842): Divertimenti a mandolino, violino e basso Nos. 1a, 2a, 3b & 4b; Giovanni Francesco GIULIANI (1760-1818): Quartetti per mandolino, violino e cello o viola e liuto Nos. 1a, 2b, 3a, 4b, 5a & 6b

Marco Luca Capucci, mandolin; Ruggero Fededegnia, Enrico Groppob, violin; Alessandra Milesi, cello; Giorgio Ferraris, theorbo

The mandolin plays a marginal role at the concert stage. Not often discs with music for this instrument lend on my desk. The revival of early music and the development of historical performance practice has not really changed that. It is still one of the more or less forgotten instruments. The increasing interest in Neapolitan music could possibly turn its fate, as the mandolin played a substantial role in music life of this city. It was also quite popular in the decades around 1800 in Vienna; even a composer like Johann Nepomuk Hummel composed some music for mandolin or with a part for it. The discs reviewed here shed light on different periods of music history and different regions.

The main composer in the programme which Pizzicar Galante recorded for Brilliant Classics is Roberto Valentini. Whereas in the early decades of the 18th century many Italian performers and composers went to London to look for employment, Valentini did the opposite. He was from Leicester and was born as Robert Valentine. He was educated as a player of the recorder and the oboe. It seems that his failure to secure a position as one of the town waits drove him to Rome at the end of the 17th century. Between 1708 and 1710 his involvement as a recorder player and oboist in performances at the palace of Cardinal Ruspoli is documented. In this capacity he collaborated with the likes of Caldara, Corelli and Handel. As a composer he published a substantial amount of chamber music, mostly for recorder, and a number of compositions - among them a set of six concerti grossi - have been preserved in manuscript.

In his oeuvre we find two collections with the opus number 12. In 1728 a set of twelve sonatas for violin and bc was printed in London, two years later a series of six sonatas in Rome. The latter are scored for transverse flute, oboe, violin or mandolin and bc. This scoring is notable because it represents one of the first collections which mentions specifically the mandolin as one of the possible instruments. The word used in the title is mandola which refers to a small, pear-shaped plucked string instrument that was used in Rome from the mid-17th century, as Anna Schivazappa informs us in the liner-notes. Its history goes back to the late 16th century when it was used as one of the accompanying instruments in the intermedi of La Pellegrina. "Tuned in fourths, the mandola (also known as mandolino) presents a flat soundboard and a lute-style bridge to which the strings (mostly made of gut) are fixed. During the eighteenth century, the instrument became known under different variations of the term 'mandolino', the size of the body was enlarged, and the number of strings increased from the initial four to five, or even six courses of double strings".

This disc includes the complete set of op. 12; the sonatas have four movements, except the sixth which comes in six. They are largely written in the galant idiom but even so some sonatas are quite substantial. The same goes for the sonatas - or rather divertimenti - from the op. 2 of Pietro Giuseppe Gaetano Boni. Little is known about him, and that includes the years and places of his birth and death. He may have been from Bologna; here he became a member of the Accademia Filarmonica in 1717. That same year his op. 1 came from the press, a collection of cello sonatas. Around 1725 he published a set of Divertimenti per camera a violino, violone, cimbalo, flauto e mandola as his op. 2. If the year of publication is correct this is the first edition which specifically mentions the mandola. The title suggests that the instruments mentioned are all involved but that is not correct; they are meant as alternatives as they are for one instrument and bc. From this set of twelve 'sonatas' Pizzicar Galante has selected three; two are in three movements, one in four. The Sonata in d minor, op. 2,2 opens with a largo, which is followed by two allegros, the first in the form of a giga.

Anna Schivazappa plays a six-course mandolino lombardo, built in 2010 and inspired by an instrument of 1792 built in Milan. I wonder why she didn't use the copy of an earlier instrument; from the article on the mandolin in New Grove I get the impression that quite a number of original instruments have been preserved. However, as I don't know what the older instruments sound like I can't tell whether that would make any difference in regard to the interpretation. The performances are excellent, and the music - although sometimes diverting rather than substantial - is very enjoyable.

The second production brings us to the classical period. In 2007 and 2010 the label Concerto released two discs with pieces by Giovanni Hoffmann and Giovanni Francesco Giuliani, played by the Ensemble Baschenis. These have now been reissued as a set; unfortunately the booklet includes the liner-notes of the second disc and omits those of the first which give some information about the playing of the mandolin and its position in music life. Especially interesting is the fact that the mandolin was often played by violinists, which can be explained by the similarity between the two instruments. "The principal characteristic is their register, both the instruments play in the high soprano range of their own family. Mandolins from Brescia and Naples use exactly the same tuning as the violin. While the former has four doubled metal strings, or of gut and metal, the Brescian mandolin has exactly the same strings as a violin, though played with a plectrum: tuned e4, a3, d3, G2. The length and shape of the neck is very similar, allowing a left hand technique almost identical to the violin".

A second interesting aspect of this set is that we hear here two different instruments. The divertimenti by Hoffmann are played on a mandolino lombardo, the same kind of instrument Anna Schivazappa plays, and probably based on the same original, as in both cases the latter is preserved in Milan. The quartets by Giuliani are performed on a mandolino napoletano, the copy of an instrument of 1781. As these instrument are used on both discs this allows a direct comparison between the two. The mandolino lombardo produces a more penetrating sound than its Neapolitan counterpart.

Both composers are little-known quantities. Giuliani - not to be confused with Mauro, who composed exclusively for his own instrument, the guitar - was from Livorno and was educated as a violinist; he was a pupil of Pietro Nardini in Florence. In the latter city he worked as a teacher and as a composer and here he also died. The quartets for mandolin, violin, viola or cello and lute comprise two movements. The odd-numbered quartets open with an allegro which is about twice as long as the second movement, either a ronḍ (Nos. 1 and 3) or a menuet with variations (No. 5). The Quartet No. 2 is also quite long, but the opening movements of the remaining two quartets are not longer than the second movements. The instruments are treated on equal footing; these are real quartets, comparable with the string quartets of the time.

That is different in the case of the divertimenti by Hoffmann. Nothing is known about him; he has no entry in New Grove. As he is sometimes called 'Johann' is it assumed that he was either German or Austrian, although it seems also possible that he was from Bohemia. At least no account of him has been found outside Vienna. It is assumed that these divertimenti date from the 1770s or 1780s. They comprise three movements. The first two open with an andante, in the second divertimento with a series of variations. The central movements are menuets with a trio; they close with a rondeau. The Divertimento No. 3 is the exception: it consists of two movements with the indication allegro molto, embracing an andante. In these divertimenti the violin plays a subordinate role; it mostly fills up the harmony. The mandolin dominates the proceedings.

Overall Giuliani's quartets are the more substantial pieces; the Quartet No. 6 is the best and most expressive of the set. However, these two discs are a substantial addition to the discography of music for mandolin. The playing is first-class; the artists deliver engaging performances and have found the right approach to this repertoire. This production makes curious for more music with mandolin from the decades around 1800.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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