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CD reviews

[A] Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 - 1770): "The Devil's Trill"

rec: Nov 6 - 8, 2006, Toddington, St Andrew's Church
Linn Records - CKD 292 (© 2008) (61'23")

[B] Giuseppe TARTINI: "Sonate a violino solo - Aria del Tasso"
Patrizia Bovi, sopranoa; Chiara Banchini, violinb

rec: March 13 - 17, 2006, Paris, Église de St Michel; Dec 3, 2007, Paris, Église St Marcel
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 080502 (© 2008) (68'47")

[A] Giuseppe TARTINI: Grave for viola da gamba and orchestra; Sonata for violin and bc in g minor 'The Devil's Trill' (Brainard g5); Sonata for violin and bc in e minor, op. 1,5 (Brainard e6) (largo); Sonate for violin and bc in g minor, op. 1,10 (Brainard g10) 'Didone abbandonata'; Sonata for violin and bc in A, op. 1,13 'Pastorale' (Brainard A16); Francesco Maria VERACINI (1690-1768): Sonata for violin and bc in A, op. 1,7
[B] anon: Depon Clorinda le sue spoglie intestea; Intanto Erminia fra l'ombrosea; Lieto ti prendo e poi (Aria del Tasso)a; Paolo ROLLI (1687-1765): Solitario bosco ombrosoa; Giuseppe TARTINI: Solitario bosco ombrosoab; Sonata for violin in a minor (Brainard a3)b; Sonata II for violin in d minor (Brainard d1)b; Sonata XIII for violin in b minor (Brainard h1)b; Sonata XVII for violin in D (Brainard D2)b; Sonata XXIV for violin in D (Brainard D 4)b

[A] Rodolfo Richter, violin; Susanne Heinrich, viola da gamba; William Carter, archlute, guitar; Silas Standage, harpsichord

In recent years there seems to be a growing interest in the oeuvre of Giuseppe Tartini. Not that he has ever been neglected, but other Italian composers, in particular Antonio Vivaldi, have enjoyed considerably greater attention than Tartini. It is difficult to point a finger on the exact causes, but it is probably the sometimes mysterious character of Tartini's music which have withheld interpreters from performing his music. And he also was seen as a kind of 'anti-virtuoso', whereas Vivaldi did everything to bring his audience into a state of astonishment and excitement. And as Tartini's criticism of Vivaldi is often quoted one could think of him writing easier and more lighthearted stuff than others.

But that is certainly a mistake. Tartini's music is anything but easy-listening stuff, and it is certainly not free of virtuosity. The two discs reviewed here are evidence of that. 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. But there isn't anything esoteric about his ideas in regard to the relationship between nature and art. In his time there was a growing preference for naturalness in music. The opera reform by Christoph Willibald von Gluck was the result of this ideal as well. That didn't prevent Tartini from writing extremely difficult music, but, as William Carter points out in his programme notes to Palladians' recording, 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".

Here Carter obviously refers specifically to the two main sonatas played by Palladians, which are also the most famous and best-known pieces by Tartini. The Devil's Trill Sonata was already part of violinist's repertoire long before the rising of the interest in early music. It is this sonata, with the mythology around its origin, which has brought Tartini the reputation of being a rather bizarre character. Listening to this sonata I don't quite understand where the fascination comes from. The title is mainly connected to the last movement, but in my opinion the first movement is much more interesting, and is much closer to Tartini the poetic composer as we have come to know him. It is a wonderful expressive movement, rightfully labelled 'affettuoso'. The second sonata with a title is also in g minor, and refers to the well-known story of Dido and Aeneas. Tartini's sonata is no programmatic music, but the three movements can be linked to several episodes in the story. "The first movement is the most conventional - a searching aria in which the violin sings alternately of melancholy longing, memories of past happiness, and hopes for the future. The brief second movement vividly portrays the brain-lacerating fury of the abandoned Dido as she realizes that Aeneas is really not coming back. After this explosion, the final movement is tartini's masterstroke - an inconsequential scrap of melody so bleak and bereft that one can really feel the immanence of an impending suicide." On the whole this is a much more interesting and captivating sonata than the 'Devil's Trill'.

The Sonata in A, op. 1,13 'Pastorale' brings us most close to what is typical for Tartini's music. It is very far removed from the previous two sonatas. It is following a sonata by Veracini, and the differences are striking and telling. When Tartini heard Veracini play this caused a kind of artistic crisis. His withdrew from publicity and worked very hard to improve his bowing technique. Veracini's sonata is technically impressive, but it is more a vehicle to show off than an expressive piece of music. It is very likely that it is this kind of virtuosity which Tartini criticised.

The disc "Sonate a violino solo" fully reveals Tartini's poetic nature, but it also sheds light on a hardly-known aspect of his output. He is best known for his violin concertos and his sonatas for violin and bc. But in the Biblioteca del Santo in Padua a little volume is preserved which contains a number of sonatas for violin solo. It once belonged to Tartini himself as the sonatas were written for his own use. He added a basso continuo 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. There is some evidence that the Devil's Trill Sonata was also originally conceived for violin solo. The production by ZigZag Territoires combines the five sonatas with songs and poems which in one way or another influenced Tartini. In his sonatas he quotes gondolier songs which are sung here by Patrizia Bovi. He also puts quotations from poems and other literature to movements in his sonatas. In the programme notes Stefano Aresi points out their function: "The poety of these mottos (...) 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 transfiguration of feelings with a rhetorical intention (as is characteristic of the aesthetics of the period in which our composer lived)." The material which inspired him are printed in the booklet.

These two discs nicely complement each other, and together they give a most interesting and revealing portrait of the aesthetic ideals of Giuseppe Tartini. As far as the interpretations are concerned both recordings are on the same level. Rodolfo Richter gives brilliant performances of the very virtuosic sonatas, but there is no shortage of expression either, like in the opening movement of the 'Devil's Trill' sonata. The theatrical character of the sonata 'Didone abbandonata' is very well explored, and their is no lack of poetry in the 'Pastorale'.

It is a bit surprising that the string bass is a viola da gamba. At the end of the disc we even get a Grave in d minor from a Concerto for viola da gamba and strings; here the orchestral part is reduced to just an archlute. The booklet says that it was written for the cello and bass viol player Antonio Vandini, who was a close friend of Tartini. But he was also a cello player, and New Grove doesn't indicate any concertos by Tartini for viola da gamba - only concertos for cello or viola da gamba. In the article about Vandini there is no reference to him being a gambist. It is told that he played the cello like a viola da gamba, with the hand under the bow. He seems only to have written cello sonatas and a cello concerto himself, and therefore I wonder whether the performance on the viola da gamba is the most logical option. It is well played, though.

The playing of Chiara Banchini is really a delight. The music is very different from most of the pieces Palladians play. The sonatas for violin solo are mostly introverted and lyrical, but there are very expressive and technically quite demanding. I don't hesitate to rate them as high as Bach's sonatas and partitas for violin solo. Chiara Banchini plays them brilliantly. The Sonata in a minor ends with a tema con variazioni - a splendid piece which gets a splendid performance. The singing of Patrizia Bovi is also very good. The booklet contains a very useful essay, and includes the songs and poems which are connected to the music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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