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CD reviews

Italian keyboard music of the 18th century

[I] Fortunato CHELLERI (1690 - 1757): 6 Sonate di Galanteria
Luigi Chiarizia, harpsichord
rec: 2017, L'Aquila (AQ)
Brilliant Classics - 96308 (© 2021) (70'49")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata No. 1 in g minor [2]; Sonata No. 2 in F [2]; Sonata No. 3 in e minor [2]; Sonata No. 3 in a minor [1]; Sonata No. 4 in D [2]; Sonata No. 5 in C [2]; Sonata No. 6 in G [2]

sources: [1] Fuge per l'Organo et Sonate per il Cembalo, 1729; [2] Sonate di galanteria per il cembalo, c1730

[II] Francesco Domenico ARAJA: Capricci & Ferdinando PELLEGRINI: Sonatas
Enrico Bissolo, harpsichord
rec: July 27 - 28, 2020, Valpolicella (Verona), Pieve di San Giorgio
Brilliant Classics - 96482 (© 2022) (67'22")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover & track-list
Scores Araja
Scores Pellegrini

Francesco Domenico ARAJA (1709-1770): Capriccio No. 1 in F; Capriccio No. 2 in A; Capriccio No. 3 in B flat; Capriccio No. 4 in F; Capriccio No. 5 in D; Capriccio No. 6 in C; Capriccio No. 7 in C; Capriccio No. 8 in B flat
Ferdinando PELLEGRINI (c1715-c1766): Sei Sonate per Cembalo, op. 2 [no keys specified]

During the 17th and 18th centuries a lot of music for the keyboard - both the organ and various strung keyboard instruments - was written across Europe. It is not surprising that today we only know the top of the iceberg. However, it is notable that, as far as the music of the 18th century is concerned, Domenico Scarlatti is virtually the only Italian composer whose keyboard music is part of the standard repertoire of performers. In recent years, Brilliant Classics has released quite a number of recordings of music by composers who are hardly known. That also goes for the three composers whose oeuvre is the subject of the two discs under review here. How many professional keyboard players - let alone music lovers at large - may have heard of Fortunato Chelleri, Francesco Araja or Ferdinando Pellegrini? Only the first two of them are represented on disc with a few works. The ensemble Atalanta Fugiens, directed by Vanni Moretto, recorded Six simphonies nouvelles by Chelleri, which date from the 1740s, Sol Gabetta recorded his Concerto in G for cello and Philippe Jaroussky included an aria from one of his oratorios in his recording 'La vanità del mondo'. Several arias from operas by Araja have been recorded by Cecilia Bartoli.

Fortunato Chelleri was born in Parma; his father was, according to Vassilis Vavoulis, the editor of his keyboard works, in New Grove, of German birth; he died when Fortunato was 12. At that time he was a choirboy at the chapel of the Madonna della Steccata in Parma. His mother died three years later, and from then on he was taken care of by an uncle, who was maestro di cappella of Piacenza Cathedral. He taught him singing and playing the keyboard. It seems that at an early age he already wrote some music, such as arias for a revival of an opera by Tomaso Albinoni. The first opera of his own pen may have been Zenobia in Palmira, written in 1709 for performance in Barcelona. There is no information of his whereabouts between 1710 and 1715, but at the latter year at the latest he was appointed maestro della cappella di camera by the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and, following the elector's death in 1716, by his brother Karl III Philipp. In the years around 1720 he was active at several places in Italy, such as Venice, where he wrote an opera at the request of Vivaldi. In 1722 he entered the service of Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, Prince-Archbishop of Würzburg (who later engaged the better-known Giovanni Benedetto Platti). He was engaged as Hofkapellmeister and promoted to Court Councillor (Hofrat) in 1723. In 1725 Chelleri moved to Kassel, where he became Kapellmeister to the Landgrave Karl of Hesse-Kassel. There he spent most of his later life.

Chelleri's oeuvre includes operas and oratorios, secular cantatas, some masses and instrumental music. The latter category consists of symphonies, chamber music and keyboard pieces. Chelleri wrote a collection of six fugues for organ and six sonatas for harpsichord, probably dating from 1729 (the last sonata in the programme recorded by Luigi Chiarizia is taken from this collection), and six Sonate di galanteria. In 1760 a collection of keyboard pieces by various composers, published in Amsterdam, included two pieces by Chelleri and two of his sonatas were part of A Collection of Lessons printed in London in 1762. A substantial part of his oeuvre has been lost.

The Sonate di galanteria which are the subject of the first disc, date from around 1730, according to Vavoulis, but Luigi Chiarizia writes in his liner-notes that they were written in the early 1720s. They are of different length and complexion. Two of the six comprise three movements, the other come in four. The character of the movements is different: most of them have Italian titles, either a tempo indication (allegro, andante) or a dance (corrente, giga, gavotta). The first sonata opens with an entrée, two sonatas close with a menuet and one with a minuetto. That is no coincidence: these sonatas are a mixture of German, Italian and French elements. Notable is that in some movements Chelleri includes the typical French notes inégales, but whereas in French music their application is left to the discretion of the performer, Chelleri has written them out, probably because he was not sure the performers knew how to play them. The sonatas are early specimens of the galant idiom, which was to conquer most of Europe from the 1730s onwards. Counterpoint is nearly absent; the right hand has most of the thematic material, whereas the left hand takes mainly an accompanying role, and that includes the so-called Alberti bass, which was an important part of the galant style.

As is often the case with music in this style, it is probably not advisable to listen to all the sonatas at a stretch. That said, they are quite pleasant to listen to and there are also a number of movements which include themes that catch the attention. Luigi Chiarizia plays a copy of a two-manual harpsichord of 1637 by Ruckers. Such instruments were widespread in the baroque era, although I wonder whether a later instrument would have been more appropriate. However, it is a fine instrument and Chiarizia plays the sonatas well enough, although now and then I had wished for more variety, for instance in the ornamentation department.

The second disc brings together two composers who were of a later generation and were contemporaries, but whose oeuvre shows clear stylistic differences. Both are little-known, but Francesco Araja is not an entirely unknown quantity. I already mentioned that Cecilia Bartoli recorded some arias from his operas, and that is the genre for which he has become best known.

Araja was born in Naples and composed his first music for a religious event when he was just fourteen. In 1729 his first opera was premiered in Naples; it was a comic opera, but his later music for the stage was entirely in the opera seria genre. His operas were performed not only in Naples, but also in Rome, Milan and Venice. It may have been the violinist Pietro Mira, who invited him to come to St Petersburg. He had come from there to collect an Italian troupe for Tasarina Anna Ivanovna. From 1735 to 1762 he worked in Russia, where he composed eight opere serie, three cantatas, a festa teatrale and a serenade. He was also responsible for the very first opera on a Russian libretto.

The Capricci which are recorded by Enrico Bissolo seem to be his only instrumental works. It is not known when they were written, but considering their character, they may well have been composed before his move to St Petersburg. They have no fixed form; only one has two sections with different character indications (Capriccio No. 2: largo - allegro spiritoso). These pieces are quite virtuosic, which may well attest to Araja's own skills on the keyboard. With their frequent leaps, some of them very wide, and crossing of hands they show some similarity with the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. In that respect they are more 'baroque' than galant, as the sonatas by both Chelleri and Pellegrini are.

Ferdinando Pellegrini (or Pellegrino) was also from Naples. He was educated at the keyboard, and as a harpsichordist and organist he worked in several places, such as Rome, Lyon and Paris; he may also have stayed in London. In Paris he served the tax-farmer Le Riche de la Pouplinière, who from the mid-1730s until 1753 had been the patron of Jean-Philippe Rameau. His oeuvre comprises mostly music for keyboard, either solo or with violin; it also includes some pieces for two violins and basso continuo as well as four concertos for harpsichord, two violins and cello, and eight Italian songs for voice and basso continuo. The six sonatas Enrico Bissolo has recorded were first published in Paris around 1754, and then reprinted in London in 1765 with the opus number 2. These pieces are typical specimens of the galant idiom, with most of the thematic material in the right hand. Five of the six sonatas end with a minuet, and all consist of two movements, except the Sonata No. 3, which has three. Bissolo, in his liner-notes, describes them with "elegance in phrasing and melodic invention, together with a certain repetitiveness in the accompaniment formulas", and that seems a fair assessment. I also agree with his statement that the music is pleasant to listen to.

The English translation of his liner-notes leave something to be desired. The meaning of last phrase is a bit of a mystery. "For the sake of the recording [probably meaning: for the record], some of these pages [of the Op. 2] have supposedly been taken, according to Torrefranca [who has studied Pellegrini's life and career], from the works of Rutini, Platti and Galuppi: therefore they should not be considered original". Does this mean that these sonatas are partly based on the work of the mentioned composers? I assume that they have been included here, but more clarity on this matter would have been welcome.

Anyway, Bissolo does deliver good performances on a copy of a harpsichord by Petrus Bull (Antwerp, 1769), which may well be the most appropriate instrument for the kind of music that is performed here.

Those who are interested in keyboard music of the 18th century, may investigate these recording, which are interesting contributions to our knowledge of the musical landscape of the mid-18th century in Italy and the growing popularity of the galant style.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Luigi Chiarizia

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