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Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 - 1770): "Diavolo - 6 Violin Sonatas"

La Serenissima
Dir: Adrian Chandler

rec: August 22 - 25, 2021 & Oct 22/25, 2023, Wells (Somerset), Wells Cathedral School (Cedars Hall)
Signum Classics - SIGCD781 (© 2024) (75'41")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in g minor 'Il trillo del diavolo' (B.g5 / GT 2.g05); Sonata VI in e minor (B.e1 / GT. 2e01); Sonata IX in A (B.A1 / GT 2.A01); Sonata in A, op. 1,1 (B.A14 / GT 2.A14); Sonata in D, op. 1,6 (B.D12 / GT 2.D12); Sonata in D, op. 1,7 (B.D6 / GT 2.D06)

Sources: [1] 26 piccole sonate per violino e violoncello e per violino solo, [ms]; [2] Sonate e una pastorale, op. 1, 1732

Adrian Chandler, violin; Vladimir Waltham, cello; Lynda Sayce, theorbo, guitar; Robin Bigwood, harpsichord

Although Giuseppe Tartini is certainly not a composer who is neglected by today's performers, it is undeniable that he has remained in the shadow of his illustrious countryman Antonio Vivaldi, who belonged among the previous generation. Tartini was very much a representative of a tendency towards a more 'natural' style in music, like Christoph Willibald von Gluck in the field of opera. In his music we often find indications like cantabile, and Tartini was inspired by literature when he started to compose his sonatas and concertos. The fact that the latter have been recorded complete just once probably attests to the relative neglect of that part of the violin literature.

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.

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. 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)."

Adrian Chandler has selected a number of pieces which constitute a survey of his music for solo violin. Three sonatas are taken from the Opus 1, a collection of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, with the addition of a Pastorale; it was published in Amsterdam in 1734. These sonatas are strongly influenced by Arcangelo Corelli, whom Tartini held in high esteem. The collection is divided into two halves of six sonatas each. The first half is modelled after the sonata da chiesa, with the second movements being fugues. The second half consists of sonate da camera. A notable difference with Corelli's sonatas is that those by Tartini are mostly in three movements, in the order slow - fast - fast. The Sonata No. 6 is in four movements, though. The Sonata No. 1 is in three movements, but the second is followed by a short section, marked adagio, which is a kind of transition to the closing presto.

The probably least-known part of Tartini's output for violin solo are sonatas which can be played without the support of a basso continuo. A volume of such pieces, with the title 26 Piccole Sonate, is preserved in the Biblioteca del Santo in Padua. It once belonged to Tartini himself as the sonatas were written for his own use. That did not withhold him from sending a copy of them to Frederick the Great. It seems unlikely that he expected them to be performed at the king's court, but such moves were first and foremost intended to improve one's status. Tartini added a bass part to some of them, but - as he wrote in a letter to a friend - out of convention. He himself very much preferred the unaccompanied form. Apparently the bass part was unfigured, as Chandler states that they can be played with accompaniment of a cello (rather than a chordal instrument). Two sonatas from this collection are included here, and both options are applied.

That leaves the piece that has become Tartini's most famous work, and has been performed frequently, from long before the interest in early music emerged. In the old times, performers were accompanied on the modern piano rather than the harpsichord. It is the mysterious nature of the sonata known in English as 'Devil's Trill' that inspired performers to include it in their repertoire. It is available in many recordings, either 'old-fashioned' or stylistically more up-to-date. Having listened to it several times in the course of my activities as a reviewer, I have not been able to really understand the excitement. It is a good piece, no doubt about it, and it is different from other sonatas, but not particularly better. In fact, as far as this disc is concerned, I have enjoyed the other sonatas just as much, or even more. In my view the 'Devil's Trill' sonata is overrated. As it is available in good recordings, I would have preferred some other sonatas instead.

That said, it is performed well, just like the other sonatas. Tartini may have criticized the one-sided attention to technical virtuosity, his own sonatas are certainly not devoid of it. The frequent application of multi-stopping attests to that. Chandler is a highly-skilled violinist, who delivers technically perfect performances. That's not all: the fully explores the lyrical qualities of these pieces, and demonstrates that they deserve more attention than they are getting to date. Thanks to him and his colleagues in his ensemble La Serenissima, this disc is a meaningful addition to the Tartini discography. I hope that he is not leaving it here, and that we can expect more Tartini from him in the future.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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