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Nicola Matteis and his time

[I] "Silk & Tweed - Nicola Matteis' Sentimental Journey"
Veronika Skuplik, violin; Andreas Arend, archlute
rec: Feb 25 - 26, 2020, Bad Zwischenahn (D), St.-Johannes-Kirche
fra bernardo - fb 2085199 (© 2020) (49'21")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list; Liner-notes

anon: Italian Ground [3]; Paul's Steeple or the Duke of Norford [3]; Thomas BALTZAR (?1631-1663): John come kiss me now [3]; Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (1660-1730): Sonata II in F; Nicola MATTEIS (c1650-?): Adagio [2]; Allemanda [2]; Passagio rotto [2]; Sarabanda amorosa [2]; Davis (David) MELL (1604-1662): John come kiss me now [3]; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata in d minor, op. 2,3 (RV 14) [5]; Giovanni Buonaventura VIVIANI (1638-1692): Sonata I in g minor [1]; Giovanni ZAMBONI (1650-?): Sonata in g minor, op. 1,6 [6]

Sources: [1] Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani, Capricci armonici da chiesa e da camera, 1678; [2] Nicola Matteis, Ayres for the violin, the first part, c1679; [3] John Playford, ed., The Division Violin: Containing A Collection of Divisions upon several Grounds for the Treble-Violin, 1684; [4] Gottfried Finger & Daniel Purcell, Six Sonatas or Solos ... compos'd by Mr G. Finger and D. Purcell, 1709; [5] Antonio Vivaldi, Sonate a violino e basso, op. 2, 1709; [6] Giovanni Zamboni, Sonate d'intavolatura di leuto, op. 1, 1718

[II] "'Il genio inglese' - Matteis, a Neapolitan in London"
Alice Julien-Laferrière, violin
Ground Floor
rec: Dec 26 - 30, 2018, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue (F), La Courroie
Harmonia mundi - HMM 916117 (© 2020) (66'17")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BANISTER (c1624-1679): A division upon a ground in F [3]; Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (1660-1730): Suite in d minor [5]; Matthew LOCKE (1621-1677): Suite in e minor [1]; Nicola MATTEIS (c1650-?): Ground in D 'per far la mano' [4]; Suite in d minor [4]; Suite in a minor [4]; Suite in B flat [4]; Suite for guitar [2]; Johann SCHOP (c1590-1667): Lachrime Pavaen

Elena Andreyev, cello; Angélique Mauillon, harp; Étienne Galletier, theorbo; Pierre Gallon, harpsichord

Sources: [1] Matthew Locke, For Several Friends, n.d.; [2] Nicola Matteis, The False Consonances of Musick, [1680]; [3] John Playford, ed., The Division Violin: Containing A Collection of Divisions upon several Grounds for the Treble-Violin, 1684; [4] Nicola Matteis, Ayres ... Preludes, Fuges, Allmands, Sarabands, Courants, Gigues, Fancies, Divisions, and Likewise Other Passages, Introductions and Fuges for Single and Double Stops, with Divisions Somewhat More Artificial, 3rd and 4th Parts, 1685; [5] Pierre Mortier, ed., 40 Airs Anglois pour la flûte à un Dessus & une Basse, [1702]

Scores Matteis

The Restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660 was not only a political turning point, but it also resulted in a stylistic 'modernization' of the music scene. Charles II, returning from his exile in France, wished to copy the splendour of Louis XIV's court, and founded the 24 violins. They should play the kind of repertoire which was common at the continent, instead of the traditional English consort music. Whereas in the first years after the Restoration, the new music was mainly French in style, the arrival of Nicola Matteis made English audiences acquainted with the modern trends in Italian music, and this was quickly adopted across the country, and paved the way for the Corellimania which was to get England in its grip around 1700.

Matteis was born in or near Naples; nothing is known for sure about his musical education, but it seems possible that he received some of it in Rome. Around 1674 he arrived in London, where his playing caused quite a sensation. The English music lovers had never heard anything like this before. The violin was known and played in England, for instance by one of its leading composers, John Jenkins. However, until then it was mostly used as a consort instrument, as an alternative to the treble viol. In his later years Jenkins composed trio sonatas with two violin parts, but their technical requirements were not comparable in any way to what Matteis was bringing to the table. One feature of his playing was double stopping, a technique which was not employed by English composers. This may explain why Matteis in the third and fourth volumes of his Ayres for the Violin marked the double stops and a few flourishes in hollow dotted notation indicating that they could be left out by less advanced players.

There is no lack of recordings of Matteis's music. Groundbreaking were three discs of the Arcadian Academy, directed by Nicholas McGegan, and released by Harmonia mundi. Since then other recordings came on the market. The two discs under review here are different in that they put Matteis into a historical perspective. Veronika Skuplik and Andreas Arend put together a programme of music which may be connected to Matteis on his way to England, whereas Alice Julien-Laferrière and Ground Floor turn to music by Matteis' English contemporaries. Both discs are well played, although quite different, and can be recommended to anyone interested in Matteis. However, in both cases there are some substantial issues which need to be pointed out.

Let me start with the disc called "Silk & Tweed". "According to Roger North (on whom we are dependent for details of Matteis's life) 'his circumstances were low, and it was say'd that he travelled thro' Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back'", Peter Walls states in New Grove. This story, whether true or false, is the starting point of the programme. The liner-notes mention as a fact that Matteis passed Venice, but I have not seen any evidence of that. Given that Matteis arrived in England in the early 1670s, one wonders why a piece by Vivaldi is performed, who at that time had not yet been born. "Was it he [Matteis] who inspired the younger Vivaldi to write the 'Stravaganze', one of his collections of violin concertos? A similarly named work, 'Bizzarrie', is the title of a famous piece by Matteis". Whether Vivaldi was acquainted with Matteis's works is probably impossible to prove. Anyway, neither one of Vivaldi's 'Stravaganze' concertos is played here, nor Matteis's Bizzarrie. Matteis may have passed Innsbruck, where Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani worked as a violinist, but, again, we don't know. Giovanni Zamboni was a theorbo player from Pisa; why one of his sonatas is included here is a bit of a mystery. Given that Matteis was also a virtuosic guitar player, a suite for this instrument would have been a more logical option. The inclusion of pieces by Gottfried (or Godfrey) Finger and from John Playford's The Division-Violin make much more sense. Matteis attempted to adapt himself in some way to what was common in England, such as the writing of a melodic line over a ground bass. Therefore the Italian Ground and John come kiss me now fit well into the programme. The latter is especially interesting, as two pieces based on this tune are played side by side: the version by Davis (or David) Mell embraces the divisions by Thomas Baltzar (called here 'Senior Balshar'). Baltzar was from Germany, and the first who demonstrated chordal playing in England. Mell was compared with him, but Baltzar was the superior player. The difference comes off well here.

Veronika Skuplik is a fine player, who has a pretty subtle way of performing, which is often nice to listen to, but falls a bit short of what one may expect in Italian music. In the pieces by Vivaldi and Viviani, I would have preferred a less restrained approach and a wider dynamic range. Her way of playing may well suit Matteis more; I return to that later. Arend is a sensitive partner, and he plays the Sonata in g minor by Zamboni, who deserves more attention anyway, very well.

The programme of the second disc also raises questions. It opens with a piece by Johann Schop, who was never in England. The reason for his inclusion may be that he arranged Dowland's Lachrymae Pavan for the violin. Again we find a piece by Finger here, which was published in 1702, when Matteis may have already died. However, the main issue is here that it is originally intended for the recorder. That does not exclude a performance on the violin, but a different choice of music may have been more appropriate.

More important are aspects of performance practice. First, we get here a suite for guitar. For most of it the guitar is accompanied by the bass instruments. Is this in accordance with the composer's intentions? The liner-notes leave us in the dark. In the sarabanda, it is the cello which plays the main role, and the guitar is confined to the role of accompaniment. This brings us to another issue: the participation of a cello in this programme seems rather questionable. The 'baroque cello' as we know it, came in vogue in Italy in the last decades of the 17th century, and it seems unlikely that it was adopted at about the same time in England. In the Suite in e minor by Matthew Locke it is certainly out of place. Amandine Beyer, in her recording of pieces by Matteis with her ensemble Gli Incogniti (ZigZag Territoires, 2009; recently reissued by Alpha), opted for a viola da gamba as string bass, and that seems a more logical choice, for historical and stylistic reasons. A bass violin also seems a legitimate possibility.

In Beyer's liner-notes to performance practice we find some interesting information missing from the booklets of the two discs reviewed here. "Many descriptions have been preserved of the violinist's playing style after his arrival in London, where he apparently held his instrument very low (around the level of the lower ribs), a position to be seen in many seventeenth-century paintings (...) and which must surely be closely connected to folk practice. On trying out this low position (...), one discovers that Matteis's music is perfectly suited to the technique, which in fact poses no insoluble problems (there are a few shifts, and the double stops are carefully chosen). The two most surprising consequences are, first of all, the modification in the violin sound, which clearly becomes more resonant with more harmonics, and above all the effect on the bow, which in my opinion creates a transfer of weight that helps to concentrate the musical intention on the phrase rather than the instrument. One can play in a lighter, more relaxed way, and bring out the evocative, even melancholy mood of many of the pieces". This is a most interesting observation, and having heard her recording I know what she means. Overall I think this brings us closer to the world of Matteis than the playing of Alice Julien-Laferrière, which is very good and which I certainly have enjoyed, but can definitely not be described as 'relaxed' (the booklet includes a picture of her's holding the violin firmly against the shoulder). In particular with regard to dynamics, the range is wider than that of Beyer and Skuplik. The latter's playing is more like Beyer's, and whereas I am not really satisfied with her performances of Vivaldi and Viviani, here she may hit the nail on the head.

Let me conclude. I have enjoyed both recordings, and all the artists on these two discs bring excellent performances. I did not know Alice Julien-Laferrière and the ensemble Ground Floor, and I hope to hear more from them. Anyone interested in Matteis and his world should not miss these two discs. The points I made with regard to performance practice should not be interpreted as criticism in the first place, but rather as some points of interest which deserve further investigation.

On a technical note: the track-list of the Harmonia mundi disc has the wrong dates of birth and death of Matteis: c1667 and 1737 are the dates of his son, Nicola junior. This is a serious blunder.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Andreas Arend
Veronika Skuplik
Ground Floor

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