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Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 - 1770)

[I] "Sonate Op. 1"
Evgeny Sviridov, violin; Davit Melkonyan, cello; Stanislav Gres, harpsichord
rec: June 2018, Beaufays, Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste
Ricercar - RIC 391 (© 2018) (65'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pastorale in A (Brainard A16) [2]; Sonata V in e minor, op. 1,5 (Brainard e6) [2]; Sonata X in g minor, op. 1,10 'Didone abandonata' (Brainard g10) [2]; Sonata XII in F, op. 1,12 (Brainard F4) [1]; Sonata XV in G 'del Tasso' (Brainard G3) [1]; Sonata XVII in D 'del Tasso' (Brainard D2) [1]

Sources: [1] Piccole sonate, n.d.; [2] Sonate e una pastorale, op. 1, 1734

[II] "4-parts Sonatas and Sinfonias"
Il Demetrio
Dir: Maurizio Schiavo
rec: March 29 - 31, 2017, Bernareggio (I), Bartok Studio
Brilliant Classics - 95398 (© 2019) (53'55")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in Ca; Sonata in Da; Sonata a 4 in Da; Sinfonia in Ga; Sinfonia in Ab

Maurizio Schiavo, Ayako Matsunaga, violin; Mauro Righinia, Marco Calderarab, viola; Antonio Papetti, cello; Danilo Costantini, harpsichord


Considering that 2020 is Beethoven year, the death of Giuseppe Tartini in 1770 - the very same year that Beethoven was born - will probably be largely overshadowed in today's concert scene. It is to be hoped that at least specialists in the field of early music will pay him and his music the attention they deserve. The two discs under review here are certainly a good start.

Tartini was one of the greatest Italian violin virtuosos of his time, and one could consider him the successor of Vivaldi. However, they were very different. That was not just a matter of contrasting characters. It had everything to do with artistic views. Tartini was very critical about the tendency to put virtuosity in the centre. Unlike most composers of his time, he never wrote an opera. In a conversation with the French theorist De Brosse he stated: "I have been asked to write for the opera houses of Venice, but I always refused, knowing only too well that a human throat is not a violin fingerboard". Roger-Claude Travers, in the liner-notes to the recording of concertos by Locatelli, Vivaldi and Tartini with Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Archiv 474 5172), writes: "By the early 1730s Tartini had found a distinctive voice of his own, speaking a language that combines the art of cantabile writing with instrumental virtuosity, while eschewing the departures of composers like Locatelli, who straddled the gulf between performance and tradition, and, above all, Vivaldi, with his blithe blurring of the dividing line between theatricality and the concerto. (...) His aim was to rediscover in violin playing the perfect, natural sound of the singing human voice. It was an ethical position."

Around 1740 Tartini suffered a stroke which partly paralysed his left arm and had some effect on his playing. As a result he devoted most of his time to teaching, in particular at the violin school he started in 1727 in Padua, where he lived from 1726 until his death, and to the writing of theoretical works, often of a rather speculative nature. His writings were often criticised, although they also found some support. He believed that God had entrusted to him the task of revealing the unifying principles of the universe. According to Tartini the source of truth is Nature. Art, on the other hand, was the modification of a given truth. Therefore the closer the artist remains to Nature the closer he will get to the truth. "I am at home as much as I can with Nature, and as little as possible with Art, having no other Art than the imitation of Nature", he wrote to a friend.

These principles explain his criticism of Vivaldi and virtuosity, as well as his own development towards a 'natural' and poetic style of composing. It is also in line with the general preference for a 'natural' style in music, which was one of the main esthetic principles of the Enlightenment. In accordance with these principles, Tartini moved away from polyphony and concentrated on melody, which he considered the perfect tool to express Affects. There is a clear connection here with the ideas of the German theorist Johann Mattheson, one of the main promoters of the esthetic ideals of the Enlightenment, who in 1723 in his journal Critica Musica stated that melody is the foundation of music.

The most pronounced feature of Tartini's music is the influence of literature, and in particular poetry. He usually read from the writings of Metastasio, Petrarch or Tasso before starting to compose. He included quotations from these writings in his manuscripts in a code of his own, which have created a kind of esoteric aura around Tartini. His criticism of Vivaldi does not mean that his own music is not virtuosic. As William Carter points out in his programme notes to a recording of violin sonatas by the ensemble Palladians (Linn Records, 2008), that virtuosity "rises out of a desire to express rather than amaze; here a lightening quick leap of the bow to portray the fury of a princess scorned; there a fiendishly painful trill to mimic diabolical laughter. It is this intense pictorial inward gaze which seems at least as strong as his desire to create 'brave sport' that sets him somewhat apart from his colleagues".

Tartini's oeuvre is quite large. He composed a small number of sacred works, but the largest part of his output comprises music for his own instrument. It consists of around 135 concertos, about 200 sonatas and in addition some trio sonatas and sonatas in four parts. The latter two categories probably consitute the least-known part of his oeuvre, and therefore the second disc with four-part sonatas is particularly welcome.

Both in his concertos and his sonatas we find quotations from poetry. These quotations are not illustrated, as it were, in the music. They rather delivered the context which was then the starting point for a composition. Basically the connection between the poetry and the music is only known to the composer. A commentator writes: "The poetry of these mottoes (...) reminded Tartini of the emotional mood to be kept in mind in performance, linked to the literary context to which they referred. These affects, clearly, should not be seen as a quest for subjective expression (as will be the case in Romantic music), but as an abstract configuration of feelings with a rhetorical intention (as is characteristic of the period in which the composer lived)."

The programme recorded by Evgeny Sviridov is put together from two sources. In 1734 a set of twelve sonatas and a Pastorale was published in Amsterdam. It is divided into two parts of six sonatas each. The first six are modelled after Corelli's sonate da chiesa; we hear one of them, the Sonata V in e minor. The second movement is fugal; the third is a short slow transition between the two fast movements. The remaining six sonatas are of the sonata da camera type. They comprise three movements, the latter of which end with a slow episode. Two of these sonatas are included here. The Sonata X in g minor bears the nickname Didone abbandonata, but this is not authentic and dates from the 19th century. This nickname was not given for no reason, and in the booklet Jérôme Lejeune makes an attempt to connect the sonata and the story of Dido and Aeneas. Interestingly, the engraving on the fly leaf of the Le Cène edition is a rendering of the Queen of Carthage. However, in the end, it is all pure speculation. The Sonata XII in F is an example of a sonata with a poetic phrase: "Lascia ch'io dica addio" - Let me say goodbye. The fact that Tartini uses this phrase in several compositions suggests that it is not connected specifically to this sonata. The closing movement is a theme with variations; each variation is a demonstration of a particular playing technique, such as trills, double stopping and arpeggio.

The addition of a Pastorale is rather curious: collections of sonatas or concertos usually comprised six or twelve pieces. The Pastorale is also unusual for its use of the scordatura technique, which was basically an issue of the 17th century and was becoming gradually obsolete during the 18th. Tartini here includes effects referring to the bagpipe and the hurdy-gurdy.

The other sonatas are taken from a collection of sonatas, known as Piccole sonate, which were never published in Tartini's own time. The notable feature of these sonatas is that they were conceived as pieces for solo violin without basso continuo. In a letter, Tartini stated: "My little sonatas for solo violin are provided with a bass line for form's sake - a particularity of which I had not informed you. I play them without a bass instrument, and this is precisely what I wish." Several sonatas are linked to sonnets by Torquato Tasso. The Sonata XV in G opens with a movement called Aria del Tasso; it comes with a quotation from the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which seems to be illustrated in the first section. This movement is followed by two allegros. The Sonata XVII comprises four movements; here the third movement is called Aria del Tasso and is a slow movement without technical pirouettes.

Evgevy Sviridov is a representative of a young generation of violinists, playing on period instruments and combining musicianship with musicological research. The latter manifests itself in his notes on interpretation in the booklet. I had the pleasure to hear him during the 2019 Festival Early Music in Utrecht, where he made a strong impression with sonatas by Nicola Porpora. His performances of these sonatas by Tartini is not an inch less impressive. These are strongly rhetorical and gestural performances of music which not only requires great technical skills, but also a thorough understanding of the aesthetic ideals of Tartini. Sviridov has both, and this results in one of the best Tartini discs I have heard over the years. With Davit Melkonyan and Stanislav Gres he has found two equally brilliant partners at the cello and the harpsichord respectively. I very much hope they will have the opportunity to record further sonatas by Tartini.

Above I already referred to the second disc, which includes pieces which are even lesser known than the solo sonatas. According to New Grove Tartini's oeuvre includes four sonatas and sinfonias in four parts. It mentions eleven pieces as being of doubtful authenticity. None of the authentic pieces have been printed and they are different in character. It is interesting that during the 18th century the playing of four-part pieces for strings was more popular than we probably are aware of. Margherita Canale Degrassi, in her liner-notes to the Brilliant Classics disc, states: "In particular the activities of the Accademia degli Imperterriti (lit. 'Academy of the Undaunted'), organised by the abbot Vincenzo Rota (1703-1785), are reported in the autobiography of the erudite Paduan Anton Bonaventura Sberti (1732-1816), which tells us that it was normal for the members in their ordinary sessions to adapt Tartini's violin concertos for performance as trios, sonatas or string quartets, with the composer's approval. Traces of this repertoire can be found in the three- and 4-parts compositions by Tartini and his circle, now preserved in the Music Library of Berkeley University and in the manuscript section of the Levi Foundation, Venice, which is derived from the Contarini family library, and in the music section of the Antoniana Library of Padua, and in other, minor music collections."

The performances reflect the differences in character between the various pieces included here. The programme opens with the Sonata in C, which is an adaptation of the Sonata in B flat (Brainard B4) for violin and basso continuo. As it has the character of a quartet, it is played as such, without the participation of a basso continuo. In the Sinfonia in G, the andante is performed without, the two fast movements with basso continuo. The line-up of the andante is based on the consideration that in later years the slow movements of the concertos are characterised by a sparse orchestral accompaniment. The same procedure is adopted in the Sinfonia in A. The Sonata in D is written in the galant idiom and performed entirely with basso continuo. The other Sonata in D, which has been preserved in an autograph, is the most contrapuntal piece in the programme, and hence performed with basso continuo.

This is a most interesting disc, as it sheds light on an aspect of performance practice in Tartini's time that is little known, and also the habit of transcribing and arranging pieces in different scorings. The performances to them full justice. The playing of Il Demetrio is probably a little less sophisticated than that of other ensembles, but it didn't bother me at all. This is a fine disc, which is a worthwhile addition to any collection of baroque music.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Davit Melkonyan
Evgeny Sviridov
Il Demetrio

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