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Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626 - 1690): "Sonate & Balletti"


rec: June 2014, Molfetta, Chiesa di San Bernardinoa; Sept 2015, Siran, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Centeilles
Ricercar - RIC 356 (© 2016) (77'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alemanda III La Piloni [2]; Balletto I [5]; Balletto II [5]; Balletto IV [2]; Corrente III [2]; Corrente III [5]; Corrente IX [5]; Sarabanda I [2]; Sonata L'Obizza a 2 [3]; Sonata La Basadonna a 6 [3]; Sonata La Cornara a 2 violinia [1]; Sonata La Cremona a 5 [3]; Sonata La Foscari a 2a [1]; Sonata La Frangipana a 2 violini [1]; Sonata La Marinona a 5 [3]; Sonata La Pezzoli a 3a [2]; Sonata La Squarzona a 5a [3]; Sonata La Zabarella a 3 [1]; Sonata I a 4 violini [4]; Sonata II a 4 [4]; Sonata III a 2 violini [4]; Sonata IV a 2 [4]; Sonata VI a 4 viole da gamba o come piace [4]; Sonata da camera La Forni a 3 [2]

Sources: [1] Sonate a due e tre, op. 2, 1655; [2] Sonate da chiesa e da camera, op. 4, 1656; [3] Sonate a due, trè, cinque e sei stromenti, op. 8, 1671; [4] La Cetra, Libro quarto di sonate a due, tre e quattro stromenti, op. 10, 1673; [5] Balletti e correnti a cinque stromenti, op. 16, 1691

Stéphanie de Failly, Juliette Roumailhac, Amandine Solano, Benjamin Scherer, violin; Lathika Vitanage, violin, viola; Dmitry Badiarov, viola da spalla; François Joubert Caillet, Jérôme Lejeune, viola da gamba; Sarah Van Oudenhove, viola da gamba, violone; Cyril Poulet, cello; Jérémie Papasergio, bassoon; Marie Bournisien, harp; Quito Gato, Bernard Zonderman, theorbo, guitar; Lionel Desmeules, harpsichord, organ

Giovanni Legrenzi was a prolific composer and a key figure in the transition from the early to the late baroque style. Unfortunately a large part of his output has been lost, if we go by what he himself claimed to have written. At least in one case we can be sure that what he did compose has been lost: the op. 18, comprising sonatas for two to seven instruments and bc was probably published in 1695 but has not survived.

Legrenzi came from a relatively humble blackground: his father was violinist at the parish church in Clusone, near Bergamo, and a minor composer. Nothing is known for sure about his formal education. His first post was that of organist at S Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Throughout his whole career he worked at many places and restless looked for improving his position. He made many attempts to obtain prestigious posts, but often failed; he also rejected positions which were offered to him. However, Stephen Bonta, in the article on Legrenzi in New Grove, concludes his biography thus: "Legrenzi’s rise to fame, honour and wealth was remarkable. As a young man from the provinces his resources were so meagre that he required a title of patrimony, granted in 1649, in order to be ordained. But by 1653 he was able to underwrite the costs of educating three boys (one of them his brother Marco) at the Accademia Mariana at Bergamo. At his death he owned property in Clusone." From around 1670 until his death he worked in Venice. He was first maestro di musica of the Ospedale dei Dereletti, then maestro di coro to the Congregazione dei Filippini at S Maria della Fava. In 1681 he was elected vice-maestro di cappella of San Marco and in 1685 he became maestro di cappella.

The present disc is devoted to one part of his oeuvre: his instrumental works which were printed between 1655 and 1691, the last being published posthumously. The first collection was published as his op. 2 and includes 18 sonatas for two and three instruments with basso continuo. Six are for two violins, three for violin and an obbligato bass instrument (violone or bassoon) and nine for two violins and violone. In his liner-notes Jérôme Lejeune points out that the part of a bass instrument is written out and largely follows the basso continuo part but sometimes derives from it. "It seems therefore clear that, following the tradition laid down by previous generations, the continuo line should be realised only by instruments capable of realising the figured bass: the organ, harpsichord, theorbo, guitar and harp; the addition of a bass melody instrument was to be avoided." Even so, in La Zarabella a 3 the viola da gamba participates in the realisation of the basso continuo. It is one of three sonatas which have been taken from this collection. The complete op. 2 has been recorded by Parnassi musici. Stylistically they are not very different from the sonatas which were composed in the first half of the century. They consist of a number of short contrasting sections, reflecting the stylus phantasticus. However, harmonically they are less experimental. Notable is the descending chromatic line which appears throughout La Cornara.

The op. 4 includes twelve sonatas and a number of dances grouped by type: three sarabande, three allemande, six corrente and six balletti. The title indicates a division of the sonatas into two categories: sonate da chiesa and sonate da camera. Only the sonatas of the latter type are indicated as such; the others are simply called 'sonatas'. All the sonatas are scored for two violins and an obbligato violone. The latter instrument is employed in the Sonata da camera La Forni, but in the Sonata La Pezzoli the string bass part is performed at the viola da spalla. The latter also participates in the Sarabanda prima. It plays the first violin part, the second is performed on the cello; obviously this means that these parts are played an octave lower than written. I have no idea what may have been the reason for this. "There is no question of imagining that the dances could have been grouped into suites according to tonality", Lejeune writes. However, that is exactly the way the three dances from the op. 4 are played here: there is less space between them than between the other tracks.

It was only 15 years later, in 1671, that another collection of sonatas came from the press, as the op. 8. The title page indicates that the scoring has been extended. The collection includes sixteen sonatas: three for two violins, three for violin and four for two violins with an obbligato bass (viola da brazzo, violone or bassoon) and six sonatas for five or six instruments. The performers have made a choice from this collection which clearly favours the larger-scored pieces. L'Obizza is the only one for two instruments, a violin and a bass viol. La Marinona, La Cremona and La Squarzona are for five instruments; the latter two include four violin parts. La Bassadonna is for six instruments: two violins, viola, two bass viols and violone. In this collection the viola da brazzo is mentioned. "It is a low-pitched instrument of the violin family - its music is unequivocally written in the bass clef - and it is supported by the player's left arm as he plays and not between the legs. This can only be the instrument we know today as the viola da spalla, another of whose names was the viola di fagotto: it owed this name to the similarity of its timbre to that of the bassoon." The bassoon-like sound can be most clearly noticed in the Sonata IV a 2 from the op. 10.

The latter is the best-known collection from Legrenzi's pen and was published under the title of La Cetra in Venice in 1673. It is dedicated to the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I in Vienna. About ten years earlier Legrenzi had attempted to obtain the post of Kapellmeister in Vienna; this dedication was probably intended as another move in that direction. The fact that the last two sonatas are for four viole da gamba seems to support this assumption: the viola da gamba was highly appreciated at the imperial court and as late as around 1700 music for viol consort was still played there. These two sonatas are not fundamentally different from consort music, despite the addition of a basso continuo part. One of them closes the programme: it is played by violin, viola and two viole da gamba. This can be justified by the title which includes the words "o come piace" - "or as one likes" which opens the possibility to use other instruments. Without any doubt the reasons were largely commercial. That said it is a bit of a shame that this sonata is not played in the scoring of Legrenzi's first choice. The two sonatas for four viols are part of a group of six sonatas for four instruments. The op. 10 also includes six sonatas for two violins and six for two violins and viola da brazzo.

The last collection is the least-known. The op. 16 includes balletti e correnti for five instruments and bc. Nine of these constitute a pair of balletto and corrente. In some of the dances a positive organ is used in the basso continuo. I find that rather odd, even if we have to assume that this music was not intended as dance music in the strict sense of the word.

Four pieces, among them the Sonata La Pezzoli (one of the sonate da chiesa from op. 4), have been recorded in the Chiesa di San Bernardino in Molfetta, with the large organ in the basso continuo. Sonatas like those by Legrenzi - and probably not only those explicitly intended as such - were played in church, for instance as a replacement of antiphons. This shows how different instrumental music could be used.

Legrenzi is not that well represented on disc, and it is mostly pieces from the opp. 2 and 10 which are played and recorded. Therefore this cross-section of his output is most welcome. Despite some oddities in the way the music is treated and some liberties for which I can't see any reason I rate these performances highly. All the participants deliver excellent performances and the way the programme has been put together guarantees much variety. But the main thing is that these sonatas by Legrenzi are of fine quality and deserve to be part of the standard repertoire of ensembles.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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