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Govanni Battista PESCETTI (1704 - 1766): "Complete Keyboard Music"

Paolo Bottini, harpsichordc, organab

rec: Dec 4 - 5, 2015, Venice, Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiorea; Feb 27 - 28, 2016, Venice, Chiesa di San Cassiano Martireb; May 28, 2016, Cremona, Corte de' Frati (Auditorium Giani Casa d'Organi)c
Brilliant Classics - 95438 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.21'55")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[Four sonatas, edited by Sandro Dalla Libera]b Sonata I; Sonata II; Sonata III; Sonata IV
[Sei Sonate per il cembalo]b Sonata I in c minor; Sonata II in F; Sonata III in C; Sonata IV in E flat; Sonata V in B flat; Sonata VI in c minor
[Sonate per Gravicembalo, 1739]a Sonata No. 1 in E; Sonata No. 2 in D; Sonata No. 3 in g minor; Sonata No. 4 in A; Sonata No. 5 in c minor; Sonata No. 6 in d minor; Sonata No. 7 in G; Sonata No. 8 in C; Sonata No. 9 in g minor; Sonata No. 10 in B flatc

When musicologists label someone a 'minor' composer, there is every reason to be suspicious. More often than not such a composer is assessed from an a-historical angle; often 'minor composers' were quite appreciated in their own time. In the case of Giovanni Battista Pescetti that label seems more or less justified. His career can be described as fairly modest. It is probably telling that in 1752 he applied for the post of second organist of San Marco in Venice but obtained the appointment only ten years later.

Venice was also his birthplace; he received an excellent education by nobody else than Antonio Lotti, a composer of great fame. His fellow student was Baldassare Galuppi; they worked together in the composition and revision of operas. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of operas but most of them have been lost. Like many other Italian performing musicians and composers he settled in London. He made his appearance as a harpsichordist there in 1736; the next year he succeeded Nicola Antonio Porpora as director of the Opera of the Nobility, the rival company to Handel's. After its collapse Pescetti remained in London and composed operas and contributed to pasticcios. In 1739 he published a set of nine keyboard sonatas; the collection also included transcriptions of some of his own opera arias. In 1747 he returned to Venice.

Today Pescetti is exclusively known for his keyboard works. The Sonata VI in c minor (CD 2, tracks 16-18) is his best-known work; I can remember that in my youth, when historical performance practice had not established itself yet, organists sometimes included this sonata in programmes of 'popular' pieces. That tells us something about its character, and that of Pescetti's keyboard works in general.

The present twofer claims to include the complete keyboard works. It opens with the nine sonatas of 1736; in addition we get four transcriptions of opera pieces, presented here as Sonata No. 10 in B flat. It is a bit disappointing that the remaining transcriptions are omitted. They would probably have fit on the second disc. The latter is devoted to a set of six sonatas of which the Sonata in c minor mentioned above is the last. They are preserved in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden; they were not printed and have come down to us in manuscript, copied by someone called F.Z. It is notable that another copy is preserved in the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello in Venice. In that manuscript the sonatas are included in a different order. This conservatory also owns a copy of the four remaining pieces, published for the first time in 1962 by Sandro Dalla Libera.

The number of movements varies from two to four in no fixed order. The Sonata No. 1 in E (CD 1, tracks 1-3) opens with an adagio, which is followed by an allegro and a menuet with variations. The Sonata No. 3 in g minor has three movements in the order of the Italian concerto: fast - slow - fast. Variations were a particularly popular form in the mid-18th century. The Sonata IV in E flat from the Venice set (CD 2, tracks 12-13) is in two movements; the second is an allegretto with variations. The Sonata II in F from that same set (CD 2, tracks 7-9) also ends with a series of variations, with the indication grazioso.

The English music journalist and historian Charles Burney, who had an opinion on everyone and everything, was critical about Pescetti, faulting him for a lack of of fire and of fertility of invention. And indeed, these sonatas are no masterworks we could not do without. However, they are very nice to listen to and there are certainly some remarkable moments. One of them is the opening movement of the Sonata No. 5 in c minor (CD 1, track 14) which comes without a tempo indication but refers to the French overture with its dotted rhythms. Two of the most beautiful movements are the adagios from the Sonata No. 4 in A (CD 1, track 11) and the Sonata No. 8 in C (CD 1, track 24). Also nice is the menuet with variations which closes the Sonata No. 1 in E (CD 1, track 3). The Sonata No. 7 in G opens with a spiritoso (CD 1, track 20) which includes some poignant harmonic progressions. These sonatas have already strong traces of the galant style, for instance in the dominance of the right hand. The left hand still has some independent material, though, in contrast to the six sonatas which are played at the second disc. These are of a later date; here the left hand is confined to an accompanying role, and here we find the Alberti basses which were so frequently used in keyboard music from the mid-18th century.

With the exception of the opera transcriptions all the sonatas are played at the organ, despite the fact that they are called sonatas for harpsichord. There is no fundamental objection to a performance on the organ and they come off pretty well on such an instrument. One wonders where and when such pieces may have been performed in a time that public concerts were rare. In Italy they may have been played during mass; the 18th century saw an increase in the use of 'secular' keyboard works in the liturgy. It is interesting to note that the sonatas of 1739 were printed in London, but with an Italian title. This suggests that they were first and foremost intended for the Italian rather than the English market. That justifies the choice of Italian organs in this recording. They date from 1743 (S. Cassiano) and 1750 (S. Giorgio) respectively; both were built by Pietro Nacchini. It seems that they are in meantone temperament and that results in the harmonic peculiarities here and there coming off quite nicely. The acoustic sometimes causes problems, especially in the fast movements, such as the presto which closes the Sonata VI in c minor.

This is the first recording of the (almost) complete keyboard works by Pescetti and that makes this set a welcome addition to the discography. Before only the set of 1739 was available in a recording by Filippo Emanuela Ravizza (Concerto, 2011), without the Sonata No. 10. I don't know that recording but the fact that Ravizza plays these sonatas on the harpsichord makes it an interesting alternative to the present recording. Paolo Bottini is a fine player who makes the most of these pieces. No, these are no masterworks, but I have thoroughly enjoyed these two discs, also thanks to Bottini's engaging performance and the splendid historical organs.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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