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Giovanni Battista GERVASIO, Emanuele BARBELLA, Gioacchino CÒCCHI: "I manoscritti per mandolino della collezione Gimo"

Soloists of the Ensemble Galanterie a plettri

rec: Oct 2017 & May 2019, Bologna, Museo di San Colombano (Collezione Tagliavini) & Eremo di Ronzano
Tactus - TC 710090 (© 2022) (1.45'20")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover & track-list
Scores Gervasio

anon: Trio. A due mandolini e Basso (ms Gimo 359)
Emanuele BARBELLA (1718-1777): Duetto a due mandolini (ms Gimo 13); Sonata a due mandolini (ms Gimo 12); Sonata a due mandolini (ms Gimo 14); Sonata a Due mandolini (mss Gimo 15-16-17); Sonata a due mandolini e basso (mss Gimo 18-19)
Giacchino CÒCCHI (1715?-1804?): Sinfonia a due mandolini, e Basso (ms Gimo 76)
Giovanni Battista GERVASIO (c1725-c1785): Duetto a due mandolini (mss Gimo 147-148); Sinfonia a due mandolii, è Basso (ms Gimo 149); Sonata a mandolino e basso (ms Gimo 141); Sonata per Camera di Mandolino e Basso (mss Gimo 142-143); Sonata per Camera di mandolino è Basso (ms Gimo 144); Sonata Per Camera di mandolino, e Basso (mss Gimo 145-146); Trio a due mandolini e Basso (ms Gimo 149)

Mauro Squillante, Davor Kirkljus, mandolin; Leonardo Massa, cello; Raffaele Vrenna, harpsichord

This set of discs deserves a special recommendation, as I will argue later. However, first I have to discuss a technical issue. The recommendation concerns only the digital files, but unfortunately not the physical discs. Let me explain. When I was listening to the second disc, I noticed that at the end of track 02 the closing chord is truncated halfway. I sent a message to Tactus, and within a few hours I received a reply which confirmed my observation. It was explained that this error took place during the final mastering of the album. It was promised that a correct file would be available as soon as possible, and within a week I indeed received a correct file. I have to compliment Tactus for the way the issue was dealt with. Unfortunately it can't be solved in case of the physical discs. That is only possible if these discs are reissued. Not everyone who purchases this release may be bothered by this problem. However, those who wish to have a technically perfect product, are advised to purchase the digital edition. There is every reason to do so as I hope to explain in the next paragraphs.

The mandolin has played an important role in Western music since the Renaissance. It is rather surprising that this has not resulted in a large number of recordings. Even representatives of historical performance practice have more or less ignored the repertoire for mandolin from the baroque era, with the exception of the concertos by Vivaldi and some other Italian composers. It is only in the last ten years or so that a considerable number of recordings with sonatas and other pieces for mandolin have been released. The disc under review is another token of the growing interest in this instrument and its repertoire. It is one of the results of a project concerning the exploration of an important source from Sweden, known as the 'Gimo Collection'.

Gimo refers to the castle in Sweden, where the collection, which now is part of the library of Uppsala University, has been found. The castle was built in the 1760s by the father of Jean Lefebure, representative of a Huguenot family that migrated to Sweden in the 17th century. The booklet does not mention the year they settled in Sweden, but it seems very likely that this migration was the effect of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which granted religious rights to the Protestant minority in France. This revocation took place in 1685 and resulted in a mass exodus of Huguenots from France. In 1762 Jean Lefebure had a Grand Tour across Europe, and part of that was a stay in Naples. There he may have become acquainted with Giovanni Battista Gervasio, who dedicated a mandolin sonata (Gimo 145) to him. Lars Berglund, in his liner-notes, states that this does not indicate that this sonata was especially written for him, but rather that Gervasio dedicated a pre-existing piece to his visitor. "The trade in music manuscripts to foreign tourists was a lucrative business in Naples at this time, and Lefebure was just one traveller among many who bought music in this way, both as souvenirs and for practical use." However, it seems possible that Lefebure took mandolin lessons from Gervasio or from someone else, given the popularity of the mandolin across Europe.

The Gimo Collection is sizeable: it comprises 360 manuscripts, including a thematic catalogue. The majority of the compositions are from Naples, which attests to the importance of this city in the European musical landscape. The collection includes trio sonatas, opera overtures and opera arias. As far as music for mandolin is concerned: this part of the collection comprises 25 manuscripts, consisting of nineteen compositions for what was known as the 'Neapolitan mandolin'. The booklet includes extensive information on this particular instrument, including detailed technical data. These cannot be reproduced; it should suffice to mention its main features here.

The Neapolitan mandolin came into existence in the 1740s. It was different from earlier types in that it was tuned like the violin, and was strung with four pairs of brass and gut strings, "that produced a bright and penetrating tone when plucked with a quill, and a bent or 'canted' soundboard that allowed for louder, higher tension strings to be fitted." The violin tuning explains why the instrument was often played by violinists and quite a number of sonatas are scored for violin or mandolin. The popularity of the Neapolitan mandolin dates from the 1760s, when players from Naples travelled to the main music centres of Europe, such as Paris, Lyon and London. It also resulted in the publication of mandolin methods. In 1767 Gervasio published his method Methode facile pour apprendre a quatre cordes, instrument pour les dames (Easy method for learning four-string instruments for ladies) in Paris. Gervasio also performed there at the Concert Spirituel.

The music for the mandolin was mostly written in the galant idiom, which was the dominant style in Naples. That does not mean that they are necessarily easy stuff. As I wrote, mandolin music was played by violinists, and given that some of the repertoire was technically demanding, they may have been performed by professional players. However, even pieces for amateurs may have been challenging, and we should not underestimate the skills of the amateurs of those days. On this disc, the sonatas for mandolin and basso continuo by Gervasio are among the more complicated pieces. They require excellent technique, and that is what Mauro Squillante demonstrates here. Gervasio's sonatas consist of various movements in fast or slow tempo and take between seven and eleven minutes. Notable are their infectious rhythms, which are perfectly realized here. I often found it hard to keep my feet still. Leonardo Massa and Raffaele Vrenna act like a true rhythm section. They substantially contribute to the often exciting level of the performances. However, it is Gervasio who is mainly responsible for the impact these sonatas have. He undoubtedly was a very good composer. It is a serious omission that he has no entry in my edition of New Grove.

Emanuele Barbella does have an entry; he was educated as a violinist, and became friends with Charles Burney, although the latter was a little disappointed about his playing, in which he missed some variety. The article does not mention his role in the development of repertoire for the mandolin. The Gimo Collection includes a number of duets for two mandolins without basso continuo. Although these are also exponents of the galant idiom, they are not devoid of counterpoint. The two mandolins follow largely different paths, whereas in many galant pieces the two instruments play in parallel motion. Anna Rita Addessi, in her liner-notes, mentions that he was an innovator in the field of playing technique. Mauro Squillante and Davor Kirkljus are a perfect match in the duets. Again, this is really good stuff. Giacchino Còcchi was a prolific composer of operas, and also contributed to other genres of vocal music. Instrumental music takes a minor place in his oeuvre.

Years ago I was rather indifferent to the mandolin. I was expecting music of a lightweight nature, which could hardly make a lasting impression. The more recordings I heard, the more I started to appreciate the mandolin and what was written for it. That was also due to the performers, who fully explored the features of the instrument and had a good nose for music that was of substantial quality. This set of discs also attests to the high level of composing for the mandolin in mid-18th-century Naples and the skills of the performers of today. I have thoroughly enjoyed this recording, and especially the sonatas by Gervasio. I can't imagine better performances than we get here.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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