musica Dei donum
"Le grazie del violino nel seicento italiano" (The Graces of the Violin in 17th-century Italy)
rec: Oct 13 - 17, 2008, Vezzolana (Asti), Canonica Regolare di Santa Maria di Vezzolano, Albugnano
Stradivarius - Str 33881 (© 2010) (71'11")
Giovanni Battista FONTANA (1589?-1630?):
Sonata VI à violino soloab ;
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643):
Biagio MARINI (1594-1663):
Romanesca per violino solo è basso se piaceab ;
Sonata III variata per il violinoab ;
Sonata IV per il violino, per sonar con due cordeab ;
Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95-1665):
Intonazione cromatica del 3o tonob;
Un cromatico overo capriccio 1a tuonab;
Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (fl 1660-1669):
Sonata II, op. 3,2 'La Cesta'ab ;
Sonata IV, op. 4,4 'La Biancuccia'ab ;
Bartolomeo DE SELMA Y SALAVERDE (c1595-after 1638):
Canzona II soprano soloab ;
Marco UCCELLINI (c1603/1610-1680):
Sonata III a violino solo detta la Ebrea marinataab 
Biagio Marini,  Arie, madrigali e corenti a 1,2,3, op. 3;
 Sonate, symphonie, canzoni ... per ogni sorte d'istrumenti, op. 8, 1629;
 Girolamo Frescobaldi, Fiori Musicali ..., 1635;
 Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, Canzoni, fantasie et correnti ..., 1638;
 Giovanni Battista Fontana, Sonate a 1.2.3. per il violino, o cornetto ..., 1641;
 Marco Uccellini, Sonate, correnti et arie ..., op. 4, 1645;
Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli,  Sonate à violino solo per chiesa e camera, op. 3, 1660;
 Sonate à violino solo per chiesa e camera, op. 4, 1660
Davide Monti, violina;
Maria Christina Cleary, arpa doppiab
The changes in the musical aesthetic which took place in the early decades of the 17th century were fundamental and influenced the writing of instrumental and vocal music. The repertoire is popular in today's early music scene, and the number of recordings is large. Even so, the oeuvre of the most prominent composers of the time is mostly not recorded completely. Only seldom recordings are released wich are devoted to collections of one single composer. This disc is no exception as it presents pieces by some of the composers who rose to prominence in their time. It is likely most pieces on this disc have been recorded before. What makes this disc stand apart is that the basso continuo is performed at the harp rather than with a keyboard or plucked instrument, if desired supported by a string bass.
The use of a harp makes much sense. The so-called arpa doppia as played in this recording had been introduced in Italy in the late 16th century. Italy then developed into a centre of builders and players of this instrument. Pieces for harp solo were included in several collections of music for keyboard, for instance by Ascanio Mayone and Giovanni Maria Trabaci. This shows that keyboard and harp were closely connected. Keyboard players could play harp music and vice versa. The latter is also the case on this disc, which includes three keyboard works by Tarquinio Merula and the famous Bergamasca from Frescobaldi's Fiori Musicali. There is wide evidence of the use of the harp as a basso continuo instrument in vocal works, like operas. The liner-notes refer to Agostino Agazzari who considered the harp as an instrument which could play a "perfect harmony of the parts", and was "an instrument good in all, as much in soprano as in bass parts". The very fact that it was used in public performances doesn't mean it must have been used in the more intimate surroundings in which chamber music was played. Whether that was indeed the case I don't know.
The title of this disc refers to an important feature of the Italian music of the time. As the liner-notes say: "The performing practice of this period was based on the ability of a player to perform a piece with good taste". That is what is called "la grazia". At the same time the word graces refers to embellishments. This is an indication that embellishments (or ornamentation) wasn't expected to be added at will, but with the aim of expressing the affetti of a composition. "Good taste demands that the music is decorated adhering to the original affect of the composition, expressing all the passions in an effortless way". The liner-notes describe at length the features of the music and the performance practice in Italy in the first half of the 17th century. This impressively shows how much was required from performers.
The music on this disc illustrates these features in some quite virtuosic pieces. A part of the repertoire of the time could be played at various instruments, as desired by the performer. But some of the compositions played here are specifically written for the violin. This means that they are highly idiomatic, and can't be easily adapted to another instrument. That is certainly the case with the three pieces by Biagio Marini who was a brilliant violinist and worked for some time in San Marco in Venice under Monteverdi. The three pieces which are performed here all contain the reference per il Violino or per Violino solo. The Sonata III variata and the Sonata IV contain double stopping, which in the title of the latter is indicated with the words per sonar con due corde. Typical violin music are also the sonatas by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfo Mealli, a composer about whom very little is known. Three collections of his music have been preserved, of which the opuses 3 and 4 are the most important. They were printed in Innsbruck in 1660 when Pandolfo Mealli was violinist at the service of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Not only are they technically demanding, they also contain some daring harmonic progressions as the two sonatas on this disc show.
The Sonata III by Marco Uccellini comes from a collection with sonatas and correnti con diverse Stromenti, but that could well refer to other pieces as this sonata is usually played on the violin. I haven't found recordings on other instruments. Uccellini's sonatas are considered some of the most progressive pieces for violin solo in the 17th century in Italy.
The sonatas by Giovanni Battista Fontana are a bit more modest in that respect. He was a violinist by profession, but otherwise little is known about him. Only one collection with his music is known, and it includes six sonatas for a treble instrument and bc. The Sonata VI bears the indication à Violino Solo, but it can be played on other instruments as well, like the cornett and the recorder.
Lastly, the performance practice of the time had a strong element of improvisation: ornaments were not written out nor were other aspects of the interpretation. Skilled musicians were expected to add these on the spot. And as many composers were also the interpreters of their own music some of there compositions may originate from improvisations which were played during performances. In an attempt to recreate this practice, as it were, Davide Monti plays a Fantasia all'improviso which serves here as a kind of introduction to the last item of the programme, Marini's Sonata III variata.
Although most pieces will have been recorded before this disc is recommendable because of the use of a harp in the basso continuo and the performance of various solo pieces at the harp. Other reasons are the high quality of the repertoire and the generally high level of playing of both artists. They certainly meet the technical requirements of this often virtuosic repertoire. I have only reservation in regard to the performances, and that regards the tempi. These are sometimes rather slow, and that is particular the case with the sonatas by Marini. The ensemble CordArte (Biagio Marini, Opus 8 - Raumklang RK 2306) take considerably less time than Arparla (in the Sonata IV slightly more than half the time) and because of that there is more differentiation between good and bad notes.
The booklet contains not only the informative programme notes from which I have quoted, but also a track-list with all the sources from which the pieces are taken.
Johan van Veen (© 2011)