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"Paisiello in Vienna"

Alon Sariel, mandolina; Izhar Elias, guitarb; Michael Tsalka, fortepianoc

rec: March 5 - 6 & August 30 - 31, 2015, Amsterdam, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis
Brilliant Classics - 95301 (© 2015) (79'54")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Ludwig VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Andante con variazioni in d minor (WoO 44b)ac; Sonatina in C (WoO 44a)ac; Sonatina in c minor (WoO 43a)ac; 6 Variations on Paisiello's 'Nel cor più non mi sento' in G (WoO 70)c; Bartolomeo BORTOLAZZI (1773-1820): Variations on Paisiello's 'Nel cor più non mi sento' in G, op. 8ab; Mauro GIULIANI (1781-1829): Introduction and variations on Paisiello's 'Nel cor più non mi sento' & Polonaise in Abc; Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837): Grande Sonata in C, op. 37aac; Pot-Pourri in g minor, op. 53bc; Johann Baptist VANHAL (1739-1813): Variations on Paisiello's 'Nel cor più non mi sento' op. 42abc

Variations are one of the major forms of Western music since the 16th century. They can be based on almost anything: a popular melody, a sacred hymn, a dance, a harmonic scheme or an existing composition by a famous master. In the late 18th century sequences of variations were sometimes preceded by an introduction; at this time variations were sometimes connected through transitional episodes and could also include a coda. The subjects in this period were often operatic melodies. The oeuvre of two Viennese masters, Mozart and Beethoven, includes a considerable number of variation works, for various scorings, from solo keyboard to duos or trios and even a complete orchestra.

One popular subject for variations was the duet Nel cor più non mi sento from the comic opera L'amor contrastato, ossia La molinara by Giovanni Paisiello. He was one of the most admired opera composers in the second half of the 18th century. His reputation was mainly based on his comic operas. Although not born in Naples, he considered himself a Neapolitan, having studied at the Conservatorio di S Onofri. Paisiello's career can be divided into three stages. In the first he concentrated on composing comic operas, mainly for Naples. The next stage started when he was invited by the Russian tsarina Catherina II to become her maestro di cappella. In this capacity he composed some operas, but as Catherina wasn't really interested in music and only kept her chapel as a matter of prestige, he found time to compose other kinds of music as well, in particular keyboard works for his pupils at court. He stayed in St Petersburg until 1783, when he returned to Naples. In the last stage of his career his attention shifted from the comic opera to the opera seria and to religious music. During this stage he also had to deal with the effects of the French revolution. Twice the king of Naples had to flee because of a French invasion. On both occasions Paisiello stayed in the city and worked for the new regime. After a while the kingdom was restored but Paisiello got away with his affiliation with the new regime as he took advantage of a general amnesty by King Ferdinando. Paisiello was the favourite composer of Napoleon who invited him to Paris; here he arrived in 1802. He contributed to the music which was performed at Napoleon's coronation in 1804. That same year he returned to Naples but sent Napoleon every year new sacred works.

Paisiello's opera mentioned above - written in Naples in 1788 - was performed in Vienna in 1790, 1794 and 1795 in a German translation under the title of Die schöne Müllerin. The duet Nel cor più non mi sento is sung twice during the second act. It immediately appealed to music lovers and composers explored its popularity by writing variations on the melody for various instrumental combinations. The present disc includes four of them; the best-known are those by Beethoven for pianoforte. The variations by Vanhal and Giuliani are for a less conventional scoring and Bartolomeo Bortolazzi is a hardly-known name. In addition we hear some other works for the combination of a plucked instrument and keyboard which today is seldom heard but was quite popular at the time, certainly in Vienna.

In our time the mandolin plays a marginal role in music life. That was very different in the 18th and early 19th centuries. 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 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.

The guitar has a much stronger presence in our time. It is one of the dominant instruments in popular music but it also plays a role in classical music. Several composers have written solo concertos for guitar and the 20th century has seen some great guitar virtuosos, such as John Williams and Andrés Segovia. The 5-course guitar, known as guitarra spagnuola, came to Italy at the end of the 16th century and soon became so popular that it developed into serious competition for the lute. Its popularity was not confined to Italy: it was also embraced in France where nobody less than Louis XIV himself took guitar lessons. In the classical and early romantic period the guitar was often used as an alternative to the much more expensive pianoforte. There is much documentary evidence that the guitar was very popular in Vienna in Schubert's time and that music for the pianoforte, including accompaniments of songs, was arranged for it. In 1824 the Wiener Zeitung included an advertisement for a 'cycle of poems by Wilhelm Müller (...) set to music (...) by Franz Schubert', referring to Die schöne Müllerin, coincidentally the same title as Paisiello's opera in German translation.

The disc opens with variations on Paisiello's duet by Bartolomeo Bortolazzi, an unknown quantity who even doesn't have an entry in New Grove. He was from Lombardy, a region in the northwest of Italy, and wrote pedagogical treatises for mandolin and guitar. He was a promotor of the North Italian mandolin; this instrument, used in this recording, is also known as the Cremonese or Brescian mandolin. It is an instrument with four single gut strings, a fixed bridge and Neapolitan tuning. During his concerts Bortolozzi was often accompanied by his son on the guitar, probably also in this set of variations.

It was also for Bortolazzi that Johann Nepomuk Hummel - one of the great keyboard virtuosos of his time and a pupil of Mozart - composed his mandolin concerto. The Grande Sonata in C, op. 37a was written for another Italian mandolin virtuoso. This piece is - as was the standard at the time - for keyboard with accompaniment of mandolin. It is interesting to note that the harpsichord is still mentioned as an alternative to the pianoforte, in a composition which dates from 1809. The question is how seriously this has to be taken. But considering that this kind of music was intended for domestic performance by more than average dilettantes one has to take into account that many of them may still have owned a harpsichord. It is questionable whether Hummel's Pot-Pourri in g minor, op. 53 was also written for amateurs as this is a quite virtuosic piece, especially as far as the guitar part is concerned.

Mauro Giuliani is much better known than Bortolazzi; he was also from Italy and settled in Vienna in 1806. He was considered the greatest guitarist of his time and played a pivotal role in the development of guitar playing and teaching in Vienna. Obviously the guitar has the lead in the pieces for guitar and pianoforte recorded here. These are arrangements of the two movements from Giuliani's Gran Quintetto op. 65 for guitar and string quartet. The liner-notes don't tell whether this arrangement is from the composer's own pen.

Johann Baptist Vanhal was one of the many performers and/or composers of Bohemian birth which made a career in Vienna. He settled there in 1760/61. He has become especially known as a composer of symphonies which almost exclusively were written before the 1780s. The variations recorded here are probably the earliest works in the programme. They are originally scored for flute or violin and guitar or pianoforte. In the latter case we have to consider even more seriously the possibility of the harpsichord. Here these variations are played in an adaptation for the three instruments which are the focus of this disc.

Beethoven composed four pieces with a mandolin part. Two of them, the Sonatina in c minor and the Adagio in E flat (not recorded here), were the direct result of his meeting Countess Josephine Clary, an amateur singer and skilled player of the mandolin, in Prague. The other two pieces were probably written for Wenzel Krumpholz, a virtuoso on the violin and the mandolin and a younger brother of the harpist Jean-Baptiste; he settled in Vienna in 1792. The variations on Paisiello's duet for pianoforte date from 1795, the same year Beethoven attended a performance of this opera. It is one of two sets of variations on material from this work; the other variations are on the aria Quant'è più bello.

This disc offers only the top of the proverbial iceberg as far as variations on opera tunes are concerned as well as pieces for combinations of instruments as played here. Many other discs of such repertoire could be produced. The present disc offers a nice insight into a widespread practice and the performance of instruments and instrumental combinations which are not very common these days. Especially this combination of keyboard and plucked instruments takes profit from the use of period instruments. I can't imagine a modern concert grand playing with a mandolin; the latter would be completely blown away, unless the former would reduce its volume to such an extent that it would sound unnatural and lose its specific features. Here, for instance in Hummel's sonata, the mandolin cannot only hold its ground, even when the fortepiano plays forte, its sound blends wonderfully with the upper register of the fortepiano. The same is true of the guitar; this instrument has a more penetrating sound which is especially important in Hummel's Pot-pourri. That said, especially in the pieces by Beethoven and Vanhal an earlier instrument would have been preferable.

Pieces like those played here are not always taken seriously. It is true, many of them were intended for entertainment only. But the better than average compositions gave performers the opportunity to show their skills, as is the case here, for instance, in Hummel's Pot-pourri. But in any case a performance on period instruments and an engaging interpretation, like we get here by these three excellent artists, makes these works become more than just trifles. If you like music from the classical period there is a good chance you shall return to this disc regularly.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Izhar Elias
Alon Sariel
Michael Tsalka

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