musica Dei donum
Emilio Percan, violin; Oriol Aymat Fusté, cello; Luca Quitavalle, harpsichord
rec: Oct 14 - 17, 2011, Velbert, St. Nikolaus-Kapelle
Onyx Classics - ONYX 4099 (© 2012) (74'52")
Cover & track-list
Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762):
Sonata in c minor, op. 1,7 ;
Sonata in b minor, op. 1,8 ;
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750):
Sonata in D, op. 1,13 (HWV 371);
Giovanni Antonio PIANI (1678-1760):
Sonata in e minor, op. 1,2 ;
Sonata in G, op. 1,4 ;
Sonata in b minor, op. 1,8 ;
Sonata in D, op. 1,10 
 Giovanni Antonio Piani, Sonate a violino solo e violoncello col cimbalo, op. 1, 1712;
 Francesco Geminiani, Sonate, op. 1, 1739
How do you present music by an unknown composer on a market which already overflows with discs and in particular in a time of economic decline? You can devote a whole disc to this repertoire, but there is a good chance that a considerable part of the target group would remain sceptical. So many interpreters pretend that the music they have discovered is of world-class quality. Do we need to believe them? Emilio Percan tries to convince us that the music of Giovanni Antonio Piani is really worthwhile. He does so by presenting it together with music by two well-known masters of his time. That seems the most sensible way: if the listener is disappointed about Piani, he still has Handel and Geminiani to enjoy.
It seems that Percan is the first to have recorded any music by Piani, although the set of sonatas for violin and bc was published in 1975. It is the only extant music by him; it is not known whether he composed more. That seems quite likely, though, considering the fact that he was held in high esteem and made a brilliant career as a violinist. Piani was born in Naples, where his father, who was from Bologna, acted as a trumpeter at the court. Four of his brothers also became professional musicians. Giovanni Antonio entered the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini, where he was trained for eight years. He then moved to Paris where he settled in 1704 and was soon considered one of the greatest Italian violin virtuosos. In this capacity he took profit from the increasing fascination of Italian music for French audiences. By 1712 he was leading violinist to Louis Alexandre de Bourbon, Count of Toulouse and Admiral of the French Fleet. At that time he was naturalized and had adopted the name of Jean-Antoine Desplanes.
In 1721 he joined the imperial chapel in Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life. His status is reflected by the fact that he was the highest-paid instrumentalist of the court chapel. At the end of his career he had become director of instrumental music. The sonatas which are the thread of this disc were published as his opus 1 in 1712 in Paris. Six of the twelve are for violin and six for either transverse flute or violin, all with basso continuo. The collection is especially interesting because of the preface in which Piani gives extensive information about various aspects of performance practice, like fingering, bowing and dynamics, and also because of various markings in the music itself. The latter include symbols which indicate crescendi, diminuendi and messa di voce. This can be explained by the fact that few musicians in France were acquainted with the Italian way of violin playing. It was considerably different from the French way as the writer Charles de Brosses observed.
The sonatas are a mixture of the sonata da camera and the sonata da chiesa. They begin with a preludio; three of the opening movements on this disc have the addition affettuoso. Next come two or three dances: allemanda, corrente, sarabanda or giga. The sonatas end with one or two movements with an indication which refers to the sonata da chiesa: adagio, andante and allegro. If the four sonatas on this disc are an indication of the character of the whole set Percan's enthusiasm is not hard to understand. The thematic material is always interesting and engaging, and the way Piani treats it is highly satisfying. There is much to discover and enjoy here. Listen to the sparkling aria (allegro) from the Sonata in D, op. 1,10 or the two last movements of the Sonata in G, op. 1,4: a highly expressive adagio and a brilliant and virtuosic allegro assai with frequent double-stopping. The virtuosity of many movements is not lost on Percan who makes a great impression with his playing technique. But his performance never goes at the cost of expression or good taste. The slow movements are delivered with great sensitivity, his phrasing and articulation are immaculate, and his ornamentation decent and tasteful.
His playing is just as superb in the other pieces on this disc. Francesco Geminiani and George Frideric Handel both spent a large part of their lives in England, even playing together at the court. Among the pieces they performed were the sonatas opus 1 by Gemiani, which show the traces of his admiration for Arcangelo Corelli. He gained by the Italomania - as Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot calls it - which had English music-lovers in its grip. Geminiani's sonatas follow the model of the sonata da chiesa, with its sequence of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. Handel was so popular as a composer that unscrupulous publishers printed sonatas in scorings and keys which were not according to Handel's intentions, and even published sonatas under his name which were not from his pen. As a result the corpus of chamber music is rather complex. The Sonata in D (HWV 371) is one of those whose authenticity is established, and which was originally intended for the violin. Handel uses thematic material from earlier compositions from various moments in his career, and therefore it is considered his latest sonata for violin.
Percan's qualities come to the fore here as well. I should not forget to mention his partners, Oriol Aymat Fusté at the cello and Luca Quintavalle at the harpsichord. They greatly contribute to the splendid delineation of the rhythmic pulse, which is also emphasized through the dynamic accents in the violin part. All three are members of the German baroque orchestra l'arte del mondo, which explains their strong congeniality in the interpretation of this repertoire.
This is a superb disc, in fact one of the best discs with baroque violin music I have heard for some time. Making the acquaintance of the music of Giovanni Antonio Piani was a most pleasant experience. I hope that his other sonatas will be recorded in the near future, preferably by these three fine artists.
Johan van Veen (© 2012)