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Francesco GEMINIANI (1687 - 1762): Pièces de clavecin

[I] Hank Knox, harpsichord
rec: May 26 - 28, 2010, Montréal, Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur - EMCCD-7772 (© 2010) (62'48")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

[II] Francesca Lanfranco, harpsichord
rec: Oct 1 - 6, 1999, Montepulciano, Studio del Camaione
Newton Classics - 88022108 (R) (© 2012) (56'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

The name of Francesco Geminani is almost exclusively associated with the violin. He was educated as a violinist, probably receiving the first lessons from his father. He performed in this capacity, first in Italy, then in England, where he settled in 1714. Here he lived and worked for 18 years. After that he travelled quite a bit, moving between London, Dublin and Paris.

Geminiani's compositional output is dominated by music for string instruments: sonatas for violin and for cello with basso continuo, trio sonatas and concerti grossi. The latter category includes arrangements of violin sonatas of his own and by Arcangelo Corelli. The single work which includes parts for wind instruments is the incidental music La forest enchantée which was commissioned by the architect and theatre director Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni in Paris. The composer was present at the performances in 1754 which were not a great success. It was not his first visit to Paris; he had been there twice before. His first visit lasted from the end of 1732 until September 1733. This resulted in the odd work out in his oeuvre, the Pièces de clavecin, which were printed simultaneously in London and Paris in 1743. It was followed by a sequence in 1762, the year of Geminiani's death. These two discs include the pieces from the first collection which are arrangements of sonatas from Geminiani's opuses 1, 2 and 4.

I couldn't find any information about Geminiani's keyboard skills. He must at least have had a basic understanding of the keyboard, and was probably able to play it at a reasonable level. Keyboard transcriptions of instrumental works were quite common at the time, but Geminiani's arrangements are different in that they are idiomatic for the keyboard. It is generally assumed that he was strongly influenced by the music of the French harpsichord composers which he heard during his stay in Paris. At that time there were many French composers who embraced the Italian style, Geminiani was one of the few Italians who adopted elements of the French taste. His sonatas op. 4 for violin and bc bear witness to that, and it can't be a coincidence that he took movements from this collection for keyboard arrangements. The French influence is already clear from the title, and the French language is used throughout the collection in his indications for the interpreter.

Notable French elements are the frequent use of the form of the rondeau which was one of the most popular in France, and the writing of doubles. Andrew Woolley and Hank Knox, in their liner-notes to the respective recordings, each see a parallel between Geminiani's Pièces de clavecin and the keyboard oeuvre of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Knox also observes that these pieces in various ways are illustrations of Geminiani's instructions in his treatises. During his career he published no less than eight, among them about 'good taste' and the art of accompaniment. These include instructions about ornamentation, and the often very extensive written-out ornaments in the harpsichord pieces can be regarded as illustrations of his instructions.

These harpsichord pieces seem to have been quite popular; the first collection was reprinted as late as 1778. This could be used as an argument for the harpsichord Hank Knox chose to play. It is signed "Jacobus et Abraham Kirckmann Londini Fecerunt 1772". "It features a distinctive English innovation, a pedal-operated 'machine-stop': pressing on it allows for an instantaneous change of registration and subsequent contrast in timbre. When the pedal is in the raised position, all registers sound; when the pedal is depressed, only one register remains." Historically speaking the use of this device in this repertoire is questionable: it is highly unlikely Geminiani knew such an instrument or would have had anything like that in mind. We therefore should probably take this recording as an example of how Geminiani's Pièces could have been played in the 1770s. The said device is used with moderation, though, showing that Hank Knox is a very fine and considerate performer. These pieces are played in a truly dance-like manner; their rhythms come off very well. It is in particular in the slower pieces that he takes more time than Francesca Lanfranco who certainly delivers good performances but lacks Knox's refinement and subtlety. Her playing - on a copy by Frank Hubbard of a Taskin of around 1760 - is sometimes a bit abrasive and awkward. Knox also has the advantage of a better recording. The miking in Lanfranco's recording is a little too close for comfort, and the attention for details is at the cost of the whole picture.

Both the interpretation and the recording make me choose Knox as the clear favourite in these fine pieces by Geminiani.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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Hank Knox

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