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Francesco GEMINIANI & Carlo GRAZIANI: Cello Sonatas

[I] Francesco GEMINIANI (1687 - 1762): Sonatas for cello and bc op. 5
The Four Nations Ensemble
rec: August 13 - 16, 2013, Hamden, CT
Orchid Classics - ORC100049 (© 2015) (76'04")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Geminiani
Score Handel

Sonata in A, op. 5,1; Sonata in d minor, op. 5,2; Sonata in C, op. 5,3; Sonata in B flat, op. 5,4; Sonata in F, op. 5,5; Sonata in a minor, op. 5,6; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Suite in E (HWV 430)a

[1] George Frideric Handel, Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, 1720; [2] Francesco Geminiani, Sonates pour le Violoncelle et Basse continue, op. 5, 1746

Loretta O'Sullivan, cello; Beiliang Zhu, cello [bc]; Scott Pauley, theorbo, guitar; Andrew Appel, harpsichord (soloa

[II] Carlo GRAZIANI (? - 1787): "Sonatas"
Marco Testori, cello
I Musici di Santa Pelagia
rec: Sept 14 - 18, 2011, Mondovi, Fondazione Academia Montis Regalis (Sala Ghislieri)
Passacaille - 1002 (© 2014) (63'28")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Sonata in C (M1950)a; Sonata in Da; Sonata in d minor (M1957)a; Sonata in E flat (M1954); Sonata in a minora

Ana Raquel Pinheiro, cello; Maurizio Fornero, harpsichorda

The two main composers who are represented on the discs reviewed here have several things in common. Francesco Geminiani and Carlo Graziani were both from Italy, worked for some time in England and published colletions of cello sonatas in Paris. But stylistically they belong to different generations, and whereas Graziani was a cellist by profession, Geminiani was educated as a violinist.

It is no matter of coincidence that their cello sonatas were published in Paris. Shortly after the turn of the century the French had embraced the Italian style. This came also to the fore in the emergence of the cello which became a serious rival of the viola de gamba, the symbol of the French style. It is only natural that composers tried to explore this development. From the 1730s onward collections of music for cello or which was also suited for the cello were published. One of the first composers to do so was Joseph Bodin de Boismortier whose sonatas op. 50 appeared in 1734. In several earlier collections from his pen the cello had already been mentioned as one of the options. Another composer who wrote for the cello was Michel Corrette; he also published a method for the cello in 1741. One of the first French professional cellists who composed music for his own instrument was Jean Barrière. Between 1733 and 1739 he published four books with cello sonatas.

Geminiani published his sonatas for cello and bc op. 5 in 1746. In the early 1740s he spent a year in France, and during that stay he probably prepared the publication of his cello sonatas as well as his Pièces de clavecin of 1743. Gemiani was a life-long admirer of Corelli, and it can hardly surprise that these sonatas are modelled after Corelli's op. 5 violin sonatas. They are all in four movements, except the sixth which has only three: slow - fast - fast. But the second movement ends with a slow cadence-like passage which leads to the closing movement, and therefore one could argue that this sonata has four movements as well. The second movement of the Sonata IV is an allegro moderato which ends with the indication: "fant[asia] ad lib. è poi Da Capo". This means that the cellist has the opportunity to include an improvisation. In the recording of The Four Nations Ensemble Loretta O'Sullivan uses it for an improvisation of considerable length, like a cadenza in a classical solo concerto. In his recording Jaap ter Linden confines himself to a rather short cadenza, more in accordance to what was common in concertos in the baroque era. What exactly is most in line with what the composer had in mind is anybody's guess. Stylistically Ter Linden is much more convincing. That goes for his interpretation in general.

Loretta O'Sullivan's performance is largely disappointing. Too often she avoids clear accents; she has her reasons which she explains in the booklet. "Geminiani opposed routine stress on downbeats, encouraging the performer to seek out the musical line before exerting an accent. (...) As we worked on these movements, it seemed best to avoid regularity when the music went on imaginative tangents. We could then embrace evident accents and cadences." I doubt whether the way she has implemented her views is what Geminiani really wanted. It often damages the rhythmic pulse. In many movements I found her performance rather flat and uninteresting. She also produces a pretty heavy sound, almost romantic, and partly as a result of this the harpsichord has not enough presence. I noted that especially in the first two sonatas. Maybe it is because my ears got used to it that it bothered me less later. Even so, the balance between the two instruments is far less than ideal. The performers also make use of rubato which seems to have been a feature of Geminiani's own style of playing (on the violin) but I feel that they exaggerate as too often the dance rhythms are not noticeable. It is even worse in Handel's Suite in E where Andrew Appel drives his variety in the treatment of the tempi too far.

The sonatas op. 5 by Geminiani are available in better recordings.

Carlo Graziani was born in Asti, southeast of Turin, but we know nothing about his activities in Italy. At some time he moved to Paris. According to the article in New Grove he performed at the Concert Spirituel, but Marc Vanscheeuwijck, in the liner-notes to the recording by Marco Testori, writes that "[oddly], he never performed as a soloist at the Concert Spirituel, as did Boccherini and all the French virtuosi of the day (...)". The list of cellists who certainly did perform at the Concert Spirituel further attest to the popularity of the cello in France. Geminiani took advantage of that by publishing his sonatas op. 5 in Paris and Graziani did the same: in 1758 his six sonatas op. 1 were printed, a couple of years later followed by his op. 2, another set of six cello sonatas. He joined the orchestra of the tax-farmer Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinière, who is best known as patron of Jean-Philippe Rameau. This was a prestigious position as this orchestra was considered the best in Paris. After La Pouplinière's death in 1762 he entered the service of Baron de Bagge, and several years later he moved to London where he became the principal cellist in the orchestra of the Haymarket Theatre. In 1770 he moved to Germany, where he gave several concerts. Soon he was invited to become the cello teacher of Friedrich Wilhelm II, Crown Prince of Prussia, in Potsdam. It is with this pupil in mind that Graziani composed his opus 3. After his retirement he chose to stay close to the prince, and he followed him to Berlin when he was crowned king in 1786. Only one year later he died.

There is a clear difference between the two sets of sonatas which were published in Paris and the rest of Graziani's oeuvre. The former were intended for the market of amateur cellists, and they are technically not too challenging. In Berlin Graziani published another collection of six sonatas as his op. 3; the year of publication is not known. These sonatas are much more virtuosic, and it is suggested that they may have been originally written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, who without any doubt was a highly skilled player of the cello. (His love for the cello inspired Beethoven to dedicate his sonatas for pianoforte and cello op. 5 to him.) A further 18 sonatas have been preserved in manuscript. Marco Testori selected five of them for his recording. It is a matter of good fortune that there are no duplications with the recording by Gaetano Nasillo who concentrated on the op. 3 set.

These sonatas testify the features of Graziani's late sonatas, for instance his use of double stopping (for instance in the andante from the Sonata in E flat) and the frequent move to high positions (Sonata in D, allegro; Sonata in d minor, allegro). The closing movement from the Sonata in a minor includes frequent shifts in positions. Stylistically the sonatas are written in the galant idiom. That doesn't mean this is music without substance; quite the contrary. The Sonata in D ends with a movement, called capriccio, and that shows as it includes some strongly contrasting sections. The same goes for the last movement from the Sonata in E flat, called menuetto - allegro, which is in fact a menuet with trio. The andante grazioso from the Sonata in d minor includes a kind of cadenza; elsewhere we also find some passages of a rather improvisatory character. Typically galant is the minuetto grazioso which closes the Sonata in C and has the form of a theme with variations.

This description should suffice to show that this is a most interesting disc. The music by Graziani is first-class and fully deserves to be explored. Nasillo delivered an excellent interpretation and so does Testori. He has done the music-lovers and especially the cello aficionados a great pleasure by turning his attention to the sonatas in manuscript and even more by playing them so well. In every respect his disc is a worthy complement to Nasillo's recording. In the fast movements his playing is lively and colourful, and his performance is dramatic if that is needed. Interesting is the fact that in the Sonata in E flat the basso continuo is performed by cello alone. This was a quite common practice in the 18th century but is largely ignored in modern performance practice.

I have greatly enjoyed this disc and I strongly recommend investigating it.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Four Nations Ensemble
I Musici di Santa Pelagia

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