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Francesco GEMINIANI (1687 - 1762): True Taste in the Art of Musick

Apollo's Cabinet

rec: Nov 21 - 25, 2018, Dorneck (CH), Kirche Nuglar-St. Pantaleon
Coviello Classics - COV 91923 (© 2020) (75'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] Francesco GEMINIANI: A Prelude: Example II; Sonata II: The Bush aboon Traquair; What shall I do?, Variations upon a subject by H. Purcell; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Solfeggio III; Francesco GEMINIANI: Sonata prima; The Lass of Peaty's Mill - Song I; An English Tune - Variations; Johann Adolf HASSE: Solfeggio I; Francesco GEMINIANI: An Interlude: Example I; Sonata quinta; O Bessy Bell and Mary Gray - Song IV

Christine Pollerus, soprano; Claire Genewein, transverse flute; Mechthild Karkow, violin; Sophie Lamberbourg, cello; Thomas Leininger, harpsichord

There was probably no time in music history when so many treatises were published as during the first two-thirds of the 18th century. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and education of common people was a basic element of its ideals. Moreover, from around 1700 domestic music making became an increasingly important and popular occupation among the bourgeoisie. They needed to be instructed in the playing of instruments or in particular aspects of interpretation, such as the art of ornamentation. Francesco Geminiani, of Italian birth and pupil of Arcangelo Corelli, published quite a number of treatises after he had setttled in England. They are all written in English, and although some of them may have been intended for the international market, such as The Art of Playing the Violin, some have an unmistakable English character. That certainly goes for A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, printed in 1749. Shortly before that, Geminiani had already published Rules for Playing in a True Taste.

Treatises usually included pieces of music illustrating what was pointed out in the book. That is also the case in Geminiani's treatises. In the Rules he had included four tunes with variations for a solo instrument and basso continuo. These tunes are all of English origin, and that is also the case with the tunes included in the treatise of 1749. Here we find four songs for a solo voice, instruments and basso continuo, three Airs made into Sonatas and four Airs with a variation. All these pieces take their starting point in existing material, such as popular tunes. Geminiani had a reputation of arranging and adapting music, both compositions from his own pen and music written by others. The most famous example of the latter is a set of concerti grossi after the twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo Op. 5 by Corelli. However, Geminiani also arranged his own compositions: he turned his sonatas for violin and basso continuo Op. 4 into concerti grossi and adapted his sonatas for cello and basso continuo Op. 5 for violin.

Geminiani was criticised for this practise, according to Thomas Leininger in his liner-notes. I don't find any reference to this in Enrico Careri's article on Geminiani in New Grove, who mentions that "[with] few exceptions, contemporary criticism of Geminiani was quite favourable, and not only with regard to his own music." If there was any criticism, it mostly concerned other aspects of his style of composing. Leininger's assessment of Geminiani's adaptations is certainly correct, though. "Geminiani viewed arranging not merely as a simple transcription, but primarily a creative and innovative process: with his arrangements of his violin sonatas as Pièces de Clavecin, he created masterly showpieces which are today invaluable for their insight into ornamentation practice, figured bass, agogics and rubato tempo and have become precious objects of study in which the personal playing style of the great composer manifests itself in an unparalleled tangible fashion in comparison to most of his colleagues".

This disc's purpose is to offer a cross-section of the various treatises and arrangements. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear from which sources the pieces are taken. It is also a mystery to me why two Solfeggi by Johann Adolf Hasse are included in the programme. The liner-notes don't discuss them; they are not even mentioned. Hasse never visited London and these solfeggi, part of a collection of 67, dating from 1762 (the year of Geminiani's death), seem to be unconnected to the rest of the programme, except that they have a pedagogical purpose. They are quite interesting, by the way, and it would be nice if more of this material would be demonstrated on disc.

Two harpsichord pieces are performed here as a prelude and an interlude respectively. These are written-out examples of figured bass featuring acciaccaturas and mordents from the 1749 treatise. The Sonata II: The Bush aboon Traquair is an example of an Air made into a Sonata. From the same source are the two songs, scored for solo voice with instruments and basso continuo. In O Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, the transverse flute and the violin play mostly independent parts, whereas in The Lass of Peaty's Mill they play colla parte. Two longer sets of variations on English tunes are What shall I do, on a subject by Purcell, and An English Tune. Both are performed here on the transverse flute; in the latter piece, the cello has an obbligato part.

The two sonatas, performed here on the violin, are basically the performers' own creations. That is to say: the starting point are sonatas by Geminiani, but here they are combined with some of the harpsichord arrangements mentioned above. This explains why most movements start as pieces for violin and basso continuo, and then turn to harpsichord solos. I find this not entirely satisfying. I would have preferred to hear the sonatas as they are written by Geminiani. The harpsichord arrangements are available complete in several recordings anyway.

The above-mentioned points of criticism notwithstanding, this is a most interesting and revealing disc, which sheds light on an aspect of Geminiani's work as a composer which is known, but seldom demonstrated. Here we have a chance to hear, what we usually only read about in books and liner-notes. The performers do an excellent job as far as the interpretation is concerned. Christine Pollerus has a fine voice and sings in a way one would like to hear more often. Singers of baroque opera can learn from this. The instrumental pieces are given excellent performances, and as a result this disc is not just interesting and instructive, but also musically compelling and entertaining. Even pedagogical stuff can be musically rewarding, if performed well, as is the case here.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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