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Instrumental music from 17th-century Italy

[I] Giovanni Battista FONTANA (1571 - 1630): "Sonate a violini ed altri strumenti ..."
Stradivaria
Dir: Daniel Cuiller
rec: Nov 29 - Dec 2, 2011, Nantes, Chapelle de l'Immaculée
Mirare - MIR 214 (© 2013) (51'21")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata Ia; Sonata II; Sonata IIIa; Sonata IV; Sonata V; Sonata VI; Sonata VII; Sonata VIII; Sonata IX

Source: Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per il violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento, 1641

Marie-Noëlle Visse Schwertz, recordera; Daniel Cuiller, Anne Chevallereau, violin; Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone; Bertrand Cuiller, Jocelyne Cuiller, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Verso Venezia - Sonate & Canzoni"
Pallade Musica
rec: Sept 2013, Mirabel, Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2697 (© 2014) (65'25")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Dario CASTELLO (1590-1658): Sonata I a sopran solo [1]; Sonata II a sopran solo [1]; Sonata VII a 2, Sopran, e Fagotto overo Viola [1]; Sonata VIII a 2, Sopran, e Fagotto overo Viola [1]; Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690): Sonata a 2, Violino, è Violone ò Faghotto 'La Donata' [3]; Sonata a 2, Violino, è Violone ò Faghotto 'La Foscari' [3]; Sonata V a 2, Violino e Viola da brazzo [5]; Sonata V a 2, Violino e Viola da brazzo o Fagotto 'La Galini' [4]; Tarquinio MERULA (1607-1665): Canzon XI 'La Miradoro' [2]; Canzon XII 'La Scarinza' [2]; Canzon XIV 'La Cappellina' [2]; Canzon XVII 'La Monteverde' [2]

Sources: [1] Dario Castello, Sonate concertate in stil moderno, libro II, 1629; [2] Tarquinio Merula, Il quarto libro delle canzoni da suonare, a doi, & à tre, op. 17, 1651; Giovanni Legrenzi, [3] Sonate a 2, a 3, libro I, op. 2, 1655; [4] Sonate a 2, 3, 5, & 6, libro III, op. 8, 1663; [5] La Cetra, libro quattro di sonate a 2-4 stromenti, op. 10, 1673

Tanya LaPerrière, violin; Elinor Frey, cello; Esteban La Rotta, theorbo; Mylène Bélanger, harpsichord, organ

The decades around 1600 were a time of many and far-reaching changes in the style of composing and performing. In vocal music the text was given utmost priority; the music should serve the communication of the text and the affetti it wanted to express. Instrumental music became a field of much experimentation. First of all, whereas before instruments mostly played vocal music - either in support of voices or replacing them - composers started to write music which was specifically intended for instruments. Secondly, with time instrumental music became more idiomatic, meaning that the specific features of a particular instrument were explored. Thirdly, it became more virtuosic. Whereas in the renaissance composers were usually educated as singers or as players of plucked or keyboard instruments, several from the early decades of the 17th century learnt to play a melody instrument, for instance Giovanni Battista Fontana (violin) and Dario Castello (cornett).

The two discs reviewed here offer specimens of the two main genres of music for instrumental ensemble: the sonata and the canzona. The latter had its origin in vocal music: the chanson which had been transported from France to Italy by composers from north of the Alps. In the 16th century canzonas were almost exclusively written for keyboard, especially the organ. After the turn of the century composers started to write canzonas for various instruments. They betray their vocal origin in that they are dominated by counterpoint in which not only the melody instruments but also the basso continuo takes part. Marc Vanscheeuwijck, in his liner-notes to Pallade Musica's disc, states that canzonas "begin with a dactylic (long-short-short) rhythm in imitation". However, Tarquinio Merula's Canzon XII opens with short notes. It just shows that there was no watershed between the two genres of canzona and sonata. In the early phases composers and publishers seem to have used these two terms interchangeably, as John Irving observes (New Grove, sonata). It probably depended on the composer how much difference he made between the two genres.

One thing that compositions from the early stages of the seconda prattica had in common is the contrast between sections within a single work. The pieces included on these two discs bear witness to that. The programme of Pallade Musica opens with the Sonata a 2 La Donata by Giovanni Legrenzi. It is divided into five sections, the first and last have no tempo indication but the three middle sections suggest that they should be played in a fast tempo. The second and fourth are indicated to be played adaggio and they embrace a presto episode. The slow passages contain phrases which are separated by short pauses which lends these sections a strongly improvisatory character. This underlines what Vanscheeuwijck writes about the sonata: "an opera written for a few instruments, and using a musical language that included elements such as recitative, demonstrative virtuosity, and contrast for the sake of expressivity".

Giovanni Battista Fontana was one of the first exponents of the seconda prattica in instrumental music. Although he was educated as a violinist - he had the nickname del Violino - his sonatas are not exclusively scored for one or two violins. The title of his only extant collection indicates that the choice is left to the performers: Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per il violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento. The Ensemble Stradivaria has taken this as an encouragement to perform two sonatas on the recorder. In some sonatas the basso continuo includes a concertante part for a bass instrument. In this recording the performers have opted for a violone as string bass, although it doesn't participate in every sonata. The booklet says that this is a violone in G which refers to the violone da gamba; this was the name given to the bass violin in Venice. It is rather odd that Pallade Musica has chosen a 'conventional' baroque cello. This instrument was only used from the last decades of the 17th century onward. In both recordings no wind instrument participates in the basso continuo. The dulcian (fagotto) would have been an interesting option; in some of the sonatas in Pallade Musica's programme this is even specifically mentioned, such as in Legrenzi's above-mentioned sonata: Sonata a 2, è Violone ò Faghotto. Here the bass instrument even opens the proceedings.

In a way it is regrettable that Pallade Musica confines itself to string instruments, especially as one of the specific features of the ensemble's programme is the contrast between a high and a low instrument which are treated on equal footing. The use of a dulcian, for instance - a sackbut would also have been a possibility - would have given more variety to the programme. In particular the sonatas by Legrenzi include a concertante part for a low instrument; Castello's Sonata VIII is another one.

There is quite a large repertoire from the first half of the 17th century which could be chosen for programmes like these. Stradivaria wanted to make a recording with sonatas by Fontana, and they made a selection of nine sonatas from the 18 in the collection. Since Fontana's music is pretty well represented in the catalogue one could ask what this disc has to offer in addition to what we already have. I don't know every recording but in those which I do know these sonatas are mostly played with a wider variety of instruments, including recorder, cornett and dulcian and also instruments like harp and lirone in the basso continuo. From that perspective a recording in which most sonatas are performed with strings only is a nice addition to the catalogue. They are very well played, with the right amount of imagination this sort of repertoire requires. The two sonatas on recorder are alright but I would have liked stronger dynamic shading; I find them a little flat even if one takes into consideration that the dynamic possibilities of the recorder are limited.

I have already mentioned my reservations in regard to the use of the cello by Pallade Musica. That is the only - but not insignificant - minus of the ensemble's performances. From a strictly musical angle they are very enjoyable. Here we have four musicians who understand what it takes to bring this music to life. The contrasts between the various sections within a single piece come across perfectly. They also deserve praise for their selection of pieces. Especially Legrenzi doesn't receive the attention he deserves, musically but also historically as he is an important link between the 17th century and the composers of the early 18th.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Pallade Musica
Stradivaria


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