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The viola in the 18th century

[I] "More than a dull ripieno - Baroque sonatas for viola"
Francesca Venturi Ferriolo, viola; Johannes Berger, celloa; Hwa-Jeong Lee, harpsichordb, fortepianoc
rec: Oct 29 - Nov 1, 2018, Nieder-Rosbach (D), Burgkirche
Da Vinci Classics - C00280 (© 2020) (72'12")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata for keyboard and viola in g minor (Wq 88 / H 512)c; William FLACKTON (1709-1798): Sonata for viola and bc in G, op. 2,6ab; Felice GIARDINI (1716-1796): Sonata for viola and bc in F 'per Lord Aylesford Billiardo'ac; Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Sonata for keyboard and viola in B flat (Graun WV A,XV,16)c; Johann Gottlieb JANITSCH (1708-1763): Sonata for keyboard and viola in D (SA 3444)c

Sources: William Flackton, Six Solos, Three for a Violoncello and Three for a Tenor, Accompanied Either with a Violoncello or Harpsichord, op. 2, 1770

[II] Emanuele BARBELLA (1718-1777), arr Johann Gottfried SCHICHT (1753-1823): "Sei Duetti a due viole" [op. 3]
Stefano Marcocchi, Simone Laghi, viola
rec: August 27 - 29, 2017, Nigoline Bonomelli (Brescia), Chiesa di S. Eufemia
Passacaille - PAS 1046 (© 2018) (67'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Scores (original version)

Duetto I in F; Duetto II in E flat; Duetto III in A; Duetto IV in c minor; Duetto V in G; Duetto VI in C
N.B. Keys of the original versions

Sources: Emanuele Barbella, Six Duets for two Violins, [n.d.]

Over many years of reviewing, only a few discs with music for viola have landed on my desk. If such discs are released, they mostly include repertoire from the period that followed the era we use to call 'Baroque'. Only a few composers from the latter era seem to have given the viola a role to play as a solo instrument. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach stated about his father that "as the greatest expert and judge of harmony he liked best to play the viola". However, he never composed a concerto or a sonata for it. The best-known viola parts are those in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, in which two violas take care of the upper parts. The viola was used in six cantatas as an obbligato instrument in arias. Even in the oeuvre of Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote sonatas and concertos for almost any instrument in use in his time, the viola does not play a significant role. In Germany, it was Georg Philipp Telemann who wrote the first concerto for viola. Obviously, the viola was part of the instrumental ensemble in the baroque era. In 17th-century Germany quite a number of pieces for instrumental ensemble included parts for one or more violas. The viola could also be used as an alternative to the viola da gamba.

In general, however, the viola played a subordinate role. Its state was summed up rather well by William Flackton, in the introduction to his sonatas Op. 2. "The Solos for a Tenor Violin [viola] are intended to shew that Instrument in a more conspicuous Manner, than it has hitherto bewn accustomed; the Part generally allotted to it being little more than a dull Ripiano [ripieno], an Accessory or Auxiliary, to fill up or compleat the Harmony in Full Pieces of Music; though it must be allowed, that at some particular Times, it has been permitted to accompany a Song, and likewise to lead in a Fugue; yet even then, it is assisted by one or more Instruments in the Unisons or Octaves, to prevent, if possible, its being distinguished from any other Instruments; or, if it happens to be heard but in so small a Space as a Bar or two, 'tis quickly overpowered again with a Crowd of Instruments and lost in Chorus".

Flackton contributed to the repertoire himself by writing four sonatas for viola and basso continuo. Three of them are part of his Op. 2, published in 1770, which also includes three sonatas for cello. In 1776 he published two further sonatas, one for cello and one for viola. Flackton was not a professional composer, but rather a music collector. However, his sonatas are of good quality, and it is telling for his status that a master like Carl Friedrich Abel was willing to "inspect", as Flackton called it, his Op. 2 before publication. Flackton was respected by his contemporaries for his "refined and elegant taste". His Sonata in G, which closes the programme of the first disc to be reviewed here, attests to that. That said, it is written in a style that was rather old-fashioned at the time. It is the only piece performed here with a harpsichord in the basso continuo, and that suits its style perfectly.

The only other sonata with basso continuo is from the pen of Felice Giardini, an Italian violinist of French descent, who was born in Turin and died in Moscow. That is an indication of his rather adventurous career, which also brought him in Berlin and London. From 1751 to 1784 he played a major role in music life in London, not only as a player, but also as a concert organizer and composer. He was one of the performers who participated in the famous Bach-Abel concerts. The Sonata in F has the addition per Lord Aylesford Billiardo, his patron, to which the sonata is dedicated and for whom he once purchased a valuable Stradivari violin. The sonata is performed here with a fortepiano in the basso continuo.

Because of his stay in Berlin, Giardini is the link between Flackton and the three German composers who were all working in Berlin, and were in the service of Frederick the Great. That does not imply that their respective sonatas were performed at his court. Johann Gottlieb Janitsch organized the so-called 'Friday academy' in Berlin, where he performed his own works and others theirs, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Gottlieb Graun. CPE Bach's Sonata in g minor has come down to us in two versions, one for viola da gamba, the other for viola. The former is the original version, and was probably written for Ludwig Christian Hesse, a true virtuoso on his instrument, who was a prominent member of the chapel of Frederik the Great. He seems to have inspired Emanuel to write several sonatas for the viola da gamba. At that time the instrument was already in decline, and therefore it is no surprise that the viola was sometimes suggested as an alternative. The viola version has been preserved in a copy by Johann Heinrich Michel, Emanuel's main copyist in Hamburg, and probably dates from after 1768. In this sonata the keyboard has an obbligato part, and it is played here at the fortepiano.

That is also the case in the other two sonatas, also with an obbligato keyboard part. Graun wrote several sonatas for the viola, which he called trio. That was pretty common at the time; CPE Bach called the sonatas for harpsichord and violin by his father also 'trios'. This refers to the fact that the keyboard plays two parts. Interestingly, the right hand of the Sonata in B flat has the addition 'violin', which means that this piece can be played in the manner of a baroque trio sonata. In the oeuvre of Janitsch we find many parts for the viola, often in his quartets. One of them is scored for transverse flute, two violas and basso continuo. In the Sonata in D the fortepiano has a prominent role. In the tracklist the viola is mentioned first in all three sonatas, which is incorrect, as in all three the keyboard takes the lead.

As one may understand, this is a very interesting disc. The pieces in the programme are little-known, although at least the works by Graun, Janitsch and CPE Bach have been recorded before. It is particularly nice that they are performed here within a historical context, explained in the excellent liner-notes of Chiara Bertoglio. The performances could not have been any better. Francesca Venturi Ferriolo produces a strong but beautiful tone, and her performances are engaged, lively and differentiated. What is especially praiseworthy is the care with which the three keyboard instruments have been selected. Often I am disappointed by the choice of a fortepiano that is far too 'modern' for the music. In the three German pieces Hwa-Jeong Lee plays a copy of a Gottfried Silbermann fortepiano of 1749, which seems the most obvious option. In Giardini she turns to a copy of an instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori of 1726; here an English instrument of a later date may have been preferable.

This is a most enjoyable disc, to which one may return regularly, because of the quality of the music and the level of the performances.

With the next disc we stay in the same period, but the music clearly moves in the direction of the classical era. In these duets by Emanuele Barbella, the violas are on their own, without the support of a keyboard instrument. This is the kind of music that was popular in the classical period, in all sorts of scorings: from string duos - for instance of violin and viola - to trios and quartets for strings of a combination of instruments of various families.

Barbella was born in Naples, where his father, Francesco Barbella, composer and maestro di violino at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto, was his first teacher. Later he was instructed by, among others, a pupil of Giuseppe Tartini. He also studied composition with Leonardo Leo, one of the leading composers in Naples. This excellent education resulted in a successful career as a violinist in several orchestras; in 1756 he entered the ranks of the Royal Chapel. One of his strongest admirers was Charles Burney, who became friends with him, and who owed much information about Neapolitan music history to him. He emphasized the intimacy of Barbella's playing, and his taste and expression. However, these qualities made him less suited to lead orchestras. No wonder, then, that Barbella made especially a name for himself as a performer of chamber music.

In his compositional oeuvre, chamber music dominates. It includes only two solo concertos, but a substantial number of duets and trios with basso continuo or bass (unfigured, as common in the post-baroque era). The second disc that is the subject of this review includes six duets for two violas. However, they were not conceived for violas: what we have here is a transcription of six duets for two violins that were published in London as his Op. 3. These transcriptions were made by Johann Gottfried Schicht, who was Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1810 until his death in 1823, and who in 1802 founded the Leipzig Singakademie.

It seems that these works are among Barbella's best-known and that they have been often performed since their publication. I have never heard them before, but I am happy to have become acquainted with them through this recording by Stefano Marcocchi and Simone Laghi, albeit in an arrangement. I certainly would like to hear them in their original scoring as well. The scoring does not matter as far as their quality is concerned. These are delightful and often exciting pieces, in which Barbella treats the instruments on equal footing. They are full of nice ideas, and there is a lot of variety in the way the two parts are written. There is really no dull moment here, and - like the previous disc - this is a recording one wants to return to. That is also due to the superb playing of the two interpreters. Especially lovers of the viola should not miss this release.

This disc also makes curious about other parts of Barbella's oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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Francesca Venturi Ferriolo

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