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Giovanni Battista SOMIS (1686 - 1763): "Violin Sonatas - Op. 1"

Kreeta-Maria Kentala, violin; Lauri Pulakka, cello; Mitzi Meyerson, harpsichord

rec: Nov 2013, Berlin-Rahnsdorf, Dorfkirche
Glossa - GCD 921807 (© 2014) (73'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Sonata in g minor, op. 1,1; Sonata in e minor, op. 1,2; Sonata in a minor, op. 1,3; Sonata in d minor, op. 1,4; Sonata in B flat, op. 1,5; Sonata in D, op. 1,6; Sonata in E flat, op. 1,7; Sonata in A, op. 1,8; Sonata in g minor, op. 1,9; Sonata in C, op. 1,10; Sonata in F, op. 1,11; Sonata in E, op. 1,12

Giovanni Battista Somis is an example of a composer whose name regularly crops up in liner-notes, but whose music is hardly known and seldom performed. He is best known in his capacity as the teacher of some famous violinist-composers of the 18th century, such as Jean-Marie Leclair. However, he was an important composer in his own right. Unfortunately only a relatively small part of his output has been preserved. An autograph catalogue once in the possession of his descendants included no less than 152 violin concertos most of which are lost.

Somis was born in Turin in a family of musicians. His father and his brother were violinists, and his mother was the sister of a violinist. In 1696 he entered the service of Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy as a musico suonatore della banda dei violini. Traditionally there were strong ties between Savoy and France. Vittorio Amedeo was married to the niece of King Louis XIV, Anne-Marie d'Orléans; this marriage was arranged by his mother, Marie-Jeanne-Baptiste who was of French birth. Somis dedicated his sonatas op. 1 to her.

In 1703 Somis was sent to Rome to study with Arcangelo Corelli; here he enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Ottoboni. After his return he entered the court orchestra again; in 1715 he became leader of the violin section, and in 1736 director of the orchestra. During his career he had several opportunities to travel to France; performances in the Concert Spirituel in 1733 are documented. Hubert Le Blanc, although an opponent of the growing influence of the violin - and the Italian style - in France, described Somis' style of playing in glowing terms. "A single down-bown ... seemed like a stretched silken cord which (in order not to be boring with the bareness of a single sound) is surrounded with flowers, with silver festoons, with golden filigrees mixed with diamonds, rubies, garnets, and above all with pearls. One saw them spill out fron his fingertips". No wonder that he was a sought-after teacher. Several of his pupils became renowned violinists: Jean-Marie Leclair, Jean-Pierre Guignon, Felice Giardini, Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, Gaetano Pugnani and Gaspard Fritz.

Eight collections of chamber music were published during his life, among them trio sonatas and a set of twelve cello sonatas. The present disc includes the first complete recording of his op. 1, a collection of twelve sonatas for violin and bc. They were printed around 1717 in Amsterdam by Jeanne Roger; in 1725 a second edition was printed by Michel-Charles Le Cène, which is an indication of their positive reception. It is remarkable that Somis doesn't model his sonatas after those by Corelli. They are all in just three movements: adagio - allegro - allegro. That suggests that they are rather modern, because this texture was to become the standard only around the middle of the century. There are also elements of the galant idiom, again a trait of modernism. As one would expect from a composer who had grown up in a region under strong French influence, the sonatas include elements of the two dominant styles of the time.

With reference to contemporary evidence the performers have taken some liberties in the interpretation. These are hard to define if one cannot compare the performances with the original score. I have not been able to track down the latter on the internet. It is my impression that the liberties are generally not crossing the border of what is plausible. The exception is the last track, the closing allegro from the Sonata in F, op. 1,11 which is introduced by the sound of a bell which returns later and also ends the piece. I find this hard to defend and rather kitschy. Fortunately that is about the only blot on this production which is important from a historical point of view as it gives us the opportunity to become acquainted with the music from the pen of a man who was one of the most famous violinists and violin teachers of his time. This recording is also musically rewarding as these sonatas are full of nice ideas and show much variety, despite their identical texture.

The performers do them full justice. They deliver engaging and technically immaculate interpretations. There is not a dull moment here, thanks first of all to the composer but also to the interpreters. This is a fine disc no lover of the baroque violin should miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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Mitzi Meyerson

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