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Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632 - 1692): Dances Op. 11 & Op. 14

[I] Varie Sonate Op. 11, 1684
Italico Splendore
rec: Oct 2017, Bagnacavallo (RA), Chiesa di San Girolamo
Tactus - TC 632206 (© 2020) (60'50")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sinfonia per camera à 6; [Suites Nos. 1 - 10]

Claudio Andriani, Stefano Rossi, Micol Vitali, violin; Clelia Gozzo, viola contralto; Emanuele Marcante, viola tenore; Alessandro Andriani, cello; Rosita Ippolito, violone in G; Fabiano Merlante, theorbo, guitar; Mario Sollazzo, Filippo Pantieri, harpsichord

[II] Sonate da cameras Op. 14, 1692
Italico Splendore
rec: July 2016, Carpi (MO), Auditorium San Rocco
Tactus - TC 632202 (© 2020) (64'43")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Suites No. 1 - 6]

Giorgio Matteoli, recorder; Priska Comploi, recorder, oboe; Dana Karmon, bassoon; Claudio Andriani, Naoko Ogura, Maria Vittoria Carosi, Ayako Matsunaga, Abramo Raule, Micol Vitali, violin; Alessandro Andriani, viola da gamba, cello; Giorgio Lucchini, cello; Carlo Sgarro, violone; Fabiano Merlante, archlute, theorbo, guitar; Mario Sollazzo, harpsichord; Mmatteo Rabolini, percussion


The two discs reviewed here are part of a series of recordings of Vitali's oeuvre, which on its turn are part of a larger project, aiming at exploring the large library of the Este family. Throughout many centuries the Estes were among the main rulers in Italy and important patrons of the arts. In 1674 Vitali entered the service of Francesco II (1660-1694) as one of the vicemaestri di cappella, a position he held until his death. Vitali was born in Bologna, and was educated as a cellist. He was probably a pupil of Maurizio Cazzati, maestro di cappella of San Petronio.

The largest part of Vitali's oeuvre consists of instrumental music. Two collections comprise trio sonatas, a relatively new genre in his time. No fewer than five of the extant twelve printed editions of his instrumental music include dances, starting with his Op. 1 of 1666. The two discs under review here are devoted to two such collections. In 1684 the Op. 11 was published under the title of Varie sonate alla francese, e all'itagliana a sei stromenti. Vitali's latest printed edition, the Op. 14, came from the press in 1692, under the title of Sonate da camera. At that time Vitali had already died, and this collection was edited by his son Tomaso Antonio.

The two collections are slightly different. In both we find the then usual dances, such as corrente, borea (bourrée), gavotta and giga. In the Op. 11 we also find pieces called capriccio, introdutione and balletto. Most of the titles are followed by a number, such as balletto secondo and giga quarta. The performers have ordered them into suites according to keys. Unfortunately the keys are not mentioned. They have followed the same procedure in the recording of the Op. 14. Here there are no numbers, and instead of balletto, Vitali uses the title ballo. In addition to the dances in the Op. 11, we find here menuets and some pieces called zoppa. This refers to a rhythm in which the second quaver in a bar of 2/4 time is accentuated. The Op. 11 collection closes with a Sinfonia per camera à 6; in this recording, it opens the programme.

One aspect of the Op. 11 is particularly interesting. As the title indicates, we have pieces in the French and in the Italian style. The addition alla francese. was quite common in the 16th century, but those pieces were not specifically recognizable as French. That is different here. The Suite No. 2, for instance, opens with a balletto in stile francese, and is written in the dotted rhythm which is a feature of French overtures, as Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote them as the introduction to his operas. Micol Vitali, in his liner-notes, marks these pieces as examples of French influence in Italy. It is also notable that these pieces are in five parts, with two middle voices that can be omitted. This is another token of French influence: Lully's instrumental music was always in five parts, and the middle voices were given to three different instruments: haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and quinte de violon. Here the middle voices are played on viola contralto and viola tenore. In comparison, the dances in the Op. 14 are in three parts.

There is a marked difference in the way the two collections are performed. In the Op. 11, the line-up consists of strings, whereas in the Op. 14, Italico Splendore added winds and percussion. In his liner-notes to the latter recording, Micol Vitali writes: "Researches carried out in Modena led us to suppose that the composition for two violins and basso continuo may have had the function of collecting the themes by means of a sort of 'shorthand': in folk music that is still performed today but has been handed down from ancient times, there are many cases of dances for violin and harmonic accompaniment that are subsequently 'blown up' and performed by entire folk orchestras. Italico Splendore has chosen to enhance this composition by using its modules as drafts to be enriched with various timbres through the introduction of wind and percussion instruments, and by playing with the agogics and dynamics, and the refrains and reprises (...)." I find that decision questionable.

It is notable that in his earliest collections of dance music, Vitali made a distinction between dances per ballare and dances da camera. One may conclude from this that the former category of dances were actually meant as music for dancing, whereas the latter refers to stylized dances, as so many dance suites in the 18th century. The title of the Op. 14 indicates that these dances are of the da camera category. If they are treated as dances per ballare, a precise rhythm seems necessary, which is at odds with the application of agogics.

There is another reason to assume that the Op. 11 and Op. 14 should be treated the same way. There titles include the word sonata, which Vitali did not use in the early collections of dance music. It seems that he used this term for stylized dances, in order to distinguish them from music for dancing. From that perspective the line-up in the Op. 11 seems closer to Vitali's intentions than that in Op. 14.

Despite my reservations with regard to the line-up in the Op. 14 recording, I have enjoyed both discs. Italico Splendore is a fine ensemble, and explores the features of both collections to the full. In the Op. 11 performances, the dance rhythms come off very well, thanks to an excellent articulation and a clear dynamic differentiation between 'good' and 'bad' notes. They show that no percussion is needed to make the listener feel the dance rhythms. The slower movements which are no dances, such as in the Sinfonia per camera which opens this disc, are performed just as well. In the Op. 14, the concept is realised well; the contributions of the wind instruments are very nice.

The project of recording Vitali's output is important and the performances I have heard are good or even outstanding. This is the first review devoted to discs in this series. More will follow in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

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