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Gabriele LEONE (c1725 - c1790): 6 sonates pour mandoline et basse continue, Livre I (1767)

Ensemble Spirituoso

rec: April 22 - 25, 2014, Argentueil (F), la Cave Dimière
Pierre Verany - PV715011 (© 2015) (54'29")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Sonata No. 1 in D; Sonata No. 2 in G; Sonata No. 3 in C; Sonata No. 4 in B flat; Sonata No. 5 in A; Sonata No. 6 in D

Florentino Calvo, mandolin; Philippe Foulon, viole d'Orphée, violoncello d'amore; Leonardo Loredo de Sá, guitar; Maria Lucia Barros, harpsichord; Ana Yepes, castanets

The mandolin has played an important role in Western music since the Renaissance. One would not guess on the basis of modern performance practice, as today - even in our time of historical performance practice - its role is marginal, both in ensemble and as a solo instrument. Over many years of attending concerts I have never seen it played. The number of discs devoted to music for the mandolin is also rather limited, although in recent years several productions have landed on my desk. On this site you will find several reviews of releases with music for the mandolin. The present disc is an interesting addition to the catalogue, because of the character and the quality of the music, but also because it sheds light on a little-known and somewhat surprising fact: the popularity of the mandolin in Paris in the second half of the 18th century.

Most discs devoted to music for the mandolin include music by Italian composers. In the 18th century it was especially connected to Naples, where it was very popular. Here an instrument was played which has become known as the mandolino napoletano, which in the second half of the century was the most common kind of mandolin. Around 1800 the mandolin was very much part of music life in Vienna. Some of the main composers of the time wrote music for it, such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

In the second half of the 18th century various composers used it in their operas. The best-known example is Mozart's Don Giovanni; the liner-notes to the present disc also mention stage works by Paisiello and Grétry. The latter's opera L'amant jaloux was first performed in Versailles in 1778. At that time the mandolin was especially popular among the aristocracy. Gabriele Leone was one of various Italian-born mandolin virtuosos who worked in Paris. Little is known about his life and musical education, but we do know that for a number of years he held the position of maître de mandoline to the Duc de Chartres. He was also one of several mandolin players who regularly performed at the Concert Spirituel, the main concert series in Paris. He is the author of a treatise on the art of playing the mandolin, Méthode raisonnée pour passer du violin à la mandoline, which was published in Paris in 1768 and was printed in an English translation in London in 1785.

His name is mentioned (as Leoné or Leoni) in the article on the mandolin in New Grove, but he has no entry in that encyclopedia. Therefore I don't know what his oeuvre looks like. The liner-notes to the present disc are rather concise and give no further information about his output. The six sonatas performed here constitute his first book of sonatas for mandolin and basso continuo, which dates from 1767. As one is probably inclined to associate the mandolin with music of a diverting nature, these sonatas come as a surprise. They are all in three movements, whereas sonatas - which were mostly intended for amateurs - often comprised only two movements. It seems unlikely that these sonatas were written for amateurs. The liner-notes describe Leone's music as "characterized by a grand virtuoso style, expressive slow movements, a search for contrasting and sometimes comical effects". These sonatas live well up to that description.

The opening movement from the Sonata No. 1 in D immediately offers a surprise as halfway the first movement the music turns to the minor and then returns to its beginning, creating an ABA structure. Notable is the chromaticism in the central movement (largo) from the Sonata No. 4 in B flat. The closing movement of that same sonata includes some harmonic tension. The larghetto from the Sonata No. 5 in A is an example of an expressive movement, but it also includes some unmistakably dramatic traits. The allegretto from the Sonata No. 3 in C is one of the most virtuosic movements in this set, but there are also technically demanding passages elsewhere.

This suffices to show that these sonatas are more than merely galant pieces which are nice to listen to, but have not that much substance. Part of this production's importance is, that it demonstrates that the mandolin was taken very seriously at the time these sonatas were published. It is time that it is taken equally seriously in our time. In that respect there is still some work to do.

The performances are very good; Florentino Calvo delivers completely convincing accounts of the mandolin parts. Like I wrote, the liner-notes are very concise. I would have liked some words about the performance. What were the reasons, for instance, to use castanets in the closing movements of two sonatas? Are there any indications in the score about their participation or is it based on some information about performance practice at the time? I also would have liked to read something about the two string bass instruments used here, which are rather uncommon. Philippe Foulon plays a violoncelle d'amour and a viole d'Orphée. Both instruments are not mentioned in New Grove. The violoncello d'amore was also known as cello a l'inglese. Jean-Charles Léon, in his liner-notes to a disc by Philippe Foulon and Brigitte Haudebourg (Arion, 2004), states that it was also known as harmonicello; he mentions an instrument with five gut strings and ten sympathetic strings. In 2001 Foulon and Léon also presented a reconstruction of the viole d'Orphée, which Michel Corrette describes in a treatise of 1781. It was an instrument conceived as a viola da gamba, but turned into something in between a viol and a cello. Corrette gives instructions as to how to change the viol into a viole d'Orphée: the strings have to be made of iron or brass and the instrument needs to be tuned C-G-D-A-E; the latter two should be doubled. This reconstruction is played here. The use of these two string bass instruments only adds to the importance of this disc. They deserve further exploration and it will be interesting to see in what way they can be employed in the performance of 18th-century music.

As you will understand, there are various good reasons to investigate this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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