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Felice GIARDINI, Johann Christian BACH: "The Courts of Turin and London - Quartets & Quintets"


rec: June 14 - 16, 2021, Turin, Archivio di Stato
CPO - 555 497-2 (© 2022) (74'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JC Bach
Scores Giardini

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Quintet for transverse flute, oboe, violin, viola and bc in D, op. 11,6 (Warb B 75); Quintet for transverse flute, oboe, violin, cello and keyboard in D, op. 22,1 (Warb B 76); Felice GIARDINI (1716-1796): Quartet for keyboard, 2 violins and cello in F, op. 21,1; Quartet for keyboard, violin, viola and cello in C, op. 21,6; Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello in F, op. 23,6

Sources: Johann Christian Bach, Six Quintettos for a Flute, Hautboy, Violin, Tenor & Bass, op. 11, 1777; Felice Giardini, Six Quartettos, three for the Harpsichord, Violin, Tenor & Violoncello, and three for the Harpsichord, two Violins & Violoncello, op. 21, 1778/79; Six Quartetto's, two for a Violin, two Tenors & Violoncello, two for two Violins, Tenor & Violoncello, two for a Violin, Oboe, Tenor & Violoncello, op. 23, 1782; Johann Christian Bach, Deux quintetts, op. 22, 1785

Manuel Granatiero, transverse flute; Arianna Zambon, oboe; Francesco D'Orazio, violin; Paola Nervi, violin, viola; Rebecca Ferri, cello; Giorgio Tabacco, harpsichord

Since the late 17th century London was an international hotspot for performing musicians and composers. There were many opportunities to perform, for instance in the orchestras of opera and theatre, and in private and (semi-)public concerts, at the court and in the homes of aristocrats and the higher bourgoisie. This lasted well into the 19th century. No wonder that composers from across Europe were attracted to London, and performed there for some time or settled there for good. Many Italian composers made their way to London to further their career. We know several of them from the late baroque period, but their peers from the second half of the 18th century are mostly less well-known. One of them is Felice Giardini; although he is represented on several discs, he is certainly not a household name, and his music is not part of the standard repertoire of orchestras and chamber music ensembles. That is all the more surprising, as in particular his chamber music includes many pieces in scorings that fit the line-up of today's chamber music ensembles rather well.

Let's first have a look at his biography. He was born in Turin, but was of French descent. Although he showed talent for the violin at an early age, his father sent him to Milan to become a choirboy at the Cathedral and to study singing, composition and harpsichord with Giuseppe Paladini. After his return he studied the violin with Giovanni Battista Somis. He then went to Rome to play in the opera orchestra, but only for a short period of time: soon he moved to Naples, where he quickly advanced to deputy leader of the orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo. After a few years he decided to make a career as a travelling virtuoso. He performed in Berlin, and then moved to England, where in 1751 he performed to great acclaim. In the next years he led a series of subscription concerts, made appearances at the Bach-Abel concerts, and also played outside London. He played a major role in the London music scene, and Charles Burney called him "the greatest performer in Europe". However, his relationship with other people was difficult; according to New Grove he became "embittered and quarrelsome". In 1784 he returned to Italy. In 1790 he made an unsuccessful attempt to return to the English operatic scene. Later he moved to St Petersburg, where he died in poverty.

As far as his oeuvre is concerned: four stage works are known, but three of them are lost, and one has been preserved in excerpts. Giardini also contributed to an oratorio, but again that is lost. The largest part of his extant oeuvre consists of instrumental music. As one may expect, most of that is for violin, either with basso continuo or with obbligato keyboard. In addition he composed trios, sometimes for unusual combinations, such as violin, guitar and fortepiano, duos for two string instruments, and some violin concertos. Giardini was also an early composer of string quartets.

With the disc under review, the Italian ensemble L'Astrée returns to a composer, which it gave attention early in its existence. In 1996 the label Opus 111 released a disc with chamber music, including three quartets from the Op. 21; it is a little disappointing that this new recording includes the sixth quartet again, as it was also part of that disc. These quartets are for keyboard, violin, viola and cello, and this was a popular scoring at the time. Although much of Giardini's music is written in the galant idiom, he often exceeds its character; there is more expression than one may expect from this kind of music. It is telling that the two quartets from the Op. 21 are in three movements rather than in two, which was a feature of much galant repertoire. The minuet was one of the most common forms, but here it appears only as the central movement in the Quartet in F; in the Quartet in C the middle movement is a siciliana with the tempo indication adagio.

A feature of Giardini's collections of chamber music pieces is the variety in the scoring. The Op. 21 comprises six quartets: three with violin and viola and three with two violins. The variety in the Op. 23 is even greater: again it consists of six quartets, but here two are for the unusual combination of violin, two violas and cello, two for string quartet, and two for oboe, violin, viola and cello. The Quartet in F is the last piece in the collection, and this is a work which is more than just entertainment. Especially the first movement includes harmonic progressions one does not expect to hear in galant music. The various instruments are given solo episodes. It is a very attractive piece, and works like this make one wonder why Giardini's oeuvre is relatively unknown.

The combination with pieces by Johann Christian Bach is obvious, as he played a major role in the London music scene as well. I already mentioned the Bach-Abel concerts, where Giardini and many other virtuosos of the time from across Europe made their appearance as soloists. Bach also performed in private surroundings at the keyboard. His two quintets included here are among the better-known parts of his oeuvre. The combination of instruments is typical of the period. Notable is the difference in the role of the keyboard. In the quintet from the Op. 11, which was published in 1774, it is part of the basso continuo group, whereas the two quintets Op. 22, printed in 1785, have an obbligato keyboard part.

All the keyboard parts are played here on the harpsichord. In the case of Bach's Op. 22 quintet that is questionable: a fortepiano - or square piano - may be a more logical option. In Giardini's quartets, which date from about the same time, one of such instruments would be a legitimate option as well. We should realize that they made a relatively early appearance in England. That said, there is no fundamental objection against using a harpsichord, as this instrument was undoubtedly still quite common in the 1770s and 80s.

This attractive and interesting programme is performed very well; in fact, I have enjoyed these performances more than other interpretations of comparable repertoire. That is due to the lively playing, but also the marked dynamic differentiation between good and bad notes and between phrases. The performers treat these pieces by Giardini and Johann Christian Bach as more than just entertainment. There is more depth here than I have noted in other performances, and that makes this recording a compelling affair. In the case of Giardini, this disc is an excellent and convincing case for his oeuvre. I hope we are going to see more of it on disc in the years to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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