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Giovanni Battista & Tomaso Antonio VITALI: "Ciaconna"

Ensemble Clematis

rec: August 2011, Centeilles, Église Notre-Dame; August 2012, Gedinne, Église Notre-Damea
Ricercar - RIC 326 (© 2012) (62'44")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover & track-list

Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Barabano; Bergamasca per il violino; Bergamasca per il violone; Capriccio di Tromba per il violino solo; Furlana; Il violino sona in tempo ordinario; Passo e mezzo; Rugiero; Sonata II in a minor; Toccata per violino solo; Tomaso Antonio VITALI (1663-1745): Parte del Tomaso Vitalinoa; Passo e mezzo in a minor; Sonata I in a minor; Sonata XII (ciacona); Sonata in D

Stéphanie de Failly, violin; François Joubert-Caillet, viola da gamba; Benjamin Glorieux, cello; Marion Fourquier, harp; Quito Gato, theorbo, guitar; Lionel Desmeules, organ; Thierry Gomar, percussion

The name Vitali may ring a bell with many lovers of early music. They think of Giovanni Battista Vitali: no less than twelve collections with instrumental music from his pen were printed between 1666 and 1692. Outside the early music world the name Vitali is mostly associated with a single piece for solo violin, the Ciaconna. It was used as the title for this disc, probably for commercial reasons, because the authenticity of this work is by no means established.

Giovanni Battista Vitali was born in Bologna, and was educated as a cellist. He played a crucial role in the development of the sonata, and especially the trio sonata. He was one of the founders of the famous Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. For a number of years he was at the service of the Este court in Modena.

His instrumental output is divided in sonatas, dances and variations of various kinds. Most pieces in this recording are from a manuscript with partite, written for violin without basso continuo. Some of them may be intended to be played without any accompaniment, but in a number of works the bass part is indicated with a letter for the key which makes it possible to add a basso continuo. In some pieces the performers have also added percussion. We know from previous recordings that this ensemble is addicted to percussion. It is unikely the composer gave any indication for its use, and it certainly doesn't make the music any better. It is rather stereotypical and becomes quite annoying after a while.

The lesser-known Vitali is Tomaso Antonio, the son of Giovanni Battista, who was born in Bologna and was educated as a violinist. When his father worked at the court in Modena he played in the court orchestra and later became its leader. His presence in Modena is documented until 1742. Only four collections of instrumental music by Vitali the younger are known, and it is remarkable that the last of these was printed in 1701. From that time until his death in 1745 he seems to have written or published nothing.

The Ciaconna has become known through the 19th-century violin virtuoso Ferdinand David who made an edition which inspired many violinists of the romantic school to play it. It is based on a copy which is preserved in Dresden and is called Parte del Tomaso Vitalino. There are severe doubts about its authenticity, though, partly because of the many strange modulations. In his liner-notes Jérôme Lejeune goes at length to refute this. However, according to John G. Suess in the article on Vitali in New Grove the authenticity is also questioned on the basis of a comparison with music which is definitely from Tomaso's pen.

Lejeune suggests that we have to do here with a work of a "violinist in crisis". He makes a comparison with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach who struggled to deal with the heritage of his father. He writes that Vitali "electrified audiences with his improvisations", but he doesn't provide us with any evidence for this. In his biography in New Grove there isn't the slightest suggestion that we know him travelling around as a violin virtuoso. That doesn't make the case for this work being written by Tomaso Vitali any stronger.

The performance isn't very convincing either. "The choice of the full organ, whose player is free to use the many resources of the instrument, to converse with the violin in tones both vehement and tender and in so doing to explore these emotions that prefigure the Sturm und Drang, allows the violinist to play with full power, making use of a breadth and fullness of sound that is not used when playing with a continuo line da camera". This statement seems to me rather nonsensical. It is highly unlikely that any piece for violin and bc was meant to be played with a large organ, unless it was specifically written for ecclesiastical use. This ciaconna definitely is not.

It is good that this intriguing piece is available in a performance with a baroque violin, but the use of a large organ seems to be based on a misconception and makes it not easier to assess its character properly. This and the use of percussion in a number of other pieces by Giovanni Battista and by Tomaso Antonio Vitali seriously damages the value of this disc. That is especially regrettable because the playing of Stéphanie de Failly and the Ensemble Clematis is admirable.

Father and son Vitali deserve a reexamination.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

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