Friday, August 13, 2021

The Italian keyboard in the 18th century

If one thinks of Italian music of the 18th century, genres like opera, oratorio and chamber cantata in the realm of vocal music spring to mind, and concertos for one or several solo instruments as well as chamber music with regard to instrumental music. In comparison, not that much keyboard music is known, except the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. However, he worked for most of his life outside Italy, in Portugal and Spain. One may add the name of Giovanni Benedetto Platti, but he made a career in Germany. One of the main composers of keyboard music was Baldassare Galuppi, but it would be an exaggeration to say that this part of his output is well-known. Not that many recordings of his keyboard music are available. We owe it to Brilliant Classics that in recent years quite a number of discs have been released, which allowed the lover of keyboard music to become acquainted with the works of composers only a few may have ever heard of. Most of that repertoire has been recorded by Italian performers, who are in the best position to assess the importance of the various composers and their music, and have access to the sources, as not all of the music is available in modern editions. In this weblog I would like to give my impressions on some recent productions from Brilliant Classics.

The best-known composer is probably Pietro Domenico Paradies (1706/07-1791) [1], also known as Paradisi, who was born in Naples. We know very little about his musical education. Throughout his career he attempted to establish himself as a composer of music for the theatre, but he largely failed in this department. His operas met little enthusiasm, and Charles Burney assessed his arias rather negatively. However, he was full of praise for his skills as a composer of keyboard music and keyboard teacher. His 12 sonatas for keyboard were published in London in 1754, where Paradies had settled in 1746. Apparently, his sonatas were received enthusiastically, as they were reprinted five times between 1765 and 1790. Today they belong among the better-known compositions by late baroque Italian composers (even though they were written after his departure from Italy). That is probably due to the fact that they show strong similarities with the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. In addition, they include traces of the style known as Sturm und Drang. Overall, they are products of the galant idiom, which was ruling across Europe in the mid-18th century. All the sonatas comprise two movements in a fast (allegro, vivace) or moderate (moderato, andante) tempo. Some have the character of a toccata. They include quite some differences, which makes it not hard to listen to them at a stretch (although they are not meant to be savoured that way). Whereas Anna Paridiso recorded the first ten sonatas on three different instruments, Alessandro Simonetti confined himself to the harpsichord, which is the most obvious option from a historical perspective. He plays the copy of a 1638 Ruckers. It is impossible to say which kind of instrument Paradies may have had at his disposal while composing these sonatas, but considering the dissemination of Ruckers harpsichords across Europe, this seems a good choice. The contrasts between and within the sonatas come off well here, for instance due to a convincing choice of tempi. Only two sonatas include dynamic indications, which on a harpsichord can only be realised by shifting from one manual to the other. Simonetti also emphasises specific passages elsewhere by alternating between the manuals, and that seems appropriate. Those who would like to have a complete recording of these compelling sonatas, should consider this production.

Carlo Antonio Campioni (1720-1788) [2] is definitely an unknown quantity. As far as I have been able to check, only one piece of chamber music from his pen is available on disc. He was of French origin and settled in Tuscany in central Italy. He, himself an excellent violinist, was in close contact with Giuseppe Tartini. Around 1752 he became maestro de cappella at Livorno Cathedral, and from 1763 until his death he worked in the same capacity in the service of the Grand Duke of Florence. It is notable that he was very interested in 'early music'; he owned a large collection of early music, in particular renaissance madrigals. His compositions found a good reception. The six harpsichord sonatas op. 4B, which were printed in Paris and in London, bear witness to that. They are of different constitution: four comprise two movements, the other two come with three. They comprise some baroque traces, such as the giga as second movement of the Sonata No. 1. The first movement of the third sonata consists entirely of arpeggios, a typical baroque procedure. Its last movement is called 'La Caccia', and here the harpsichord imitates the sound of hunting horns. The sixth sonata takes a special place in the collection as it includes a violin part. Sonatas for keyboard with a melody instrument were quite popular at the time. These melody parts were often ad libitum, which means that they can be omitted. That is not the case here: the violin has an obbligato part. Campioni's sonatas are well written and entertaining, and therefore this recording is a substantial addition to the discography. Simone Stella deserves praise for this discovery and for his engaging and lively interpretation. Valerio Losito is the excellent violinist in the sixth sonata. This disc is a most pleasant acquaintance with Carlo Antonio Campioni.

The next production is devoted to a composer, who is even lesser known than Campioni. The latter has at least an entry in New Grove, but Ignazio Spergher (1734-1808) [3] is not even mentioned. He was born in Treviso and worked there all his life, as organist, singing and keyboard teacher and as composer. The Brilliant Classics production does not comprise his complete keyboard oeuvre, but rather a selection. It includes the six sonatas Op. 1, printed in 1786, as well as the sonatas Op. 6 from 1778. In addition we get some sonatas and other pieces which have been preserved in manuscript. The twelve printed sonatas consist of three movements. The last sonata from the Op. 6 has remained incomplete: the second set breaks off halfway, and the third is absent. Most of the pieces in manuscript comprise just one movement with different titles, such as rondo, andantino or allegro. The last disc ends with a Pastorale. As one may expect, the latter piece is played at the organ. In all the other pieces the choice of keyboard is left to the interpreter, although the liner-notes give the impression that some pieces are intended for the organ. That seems possible but is hard to prove. Fact is that the sonatas Op. 1 are not intended for liturgical use, which makes it possible to perform them on harpsichord. Chiara Minali decided to play the Op. 1 sonatas and the pieces in manuscript at the organ, whereas in the sonatas Op. 6 she plays the harpsichord. The option of a fortepiano - not out of the question given the time of publication - is not even discussed in the liner-notes. These could have been more informative. As was common at the time, most of the thematic material is allocated to the right hand, whereas the left hand has a merely accompanying role. Part of that are Alberti and drum basses. For that reason one should probably not listem to these sonatas at a stretch. They are just a bit too uniform. However, if played in the right doses, there is certainly much to enjoy. Chiara Minali plays an organ of 1903; however, it largely dates from 1845. At first sight that seems a less than appropriate instrument, given the year it was built, but we should not overlook that Italian organ building at that time was fairly traditional, even conservative, and the instrument produces a sound which is considerably older than the year of its creation may suggest. It certainly suits Spergher's music. The harpsichord is a copy of a Giusti of 1681. In her performances at the harpsichord I find Minali too straightforward and a little one-dimensional. Rubato and a differentiated treatment of tempo would have made these performances much more engaging. In comparison, Minali's perforrmances at the organ make a better impression, as here we have the advantage of a more varied palette of colours. However, those who are interested in keyboard music of the late 18th century, should seriously consider this production.

With Giovanni Battista Grazioli (1746-1828) [4] we move to Venice. He was born in Bogliaco, but moved to Venice early in his career, where he worked as organist at St Mark's. He composed a large amount of sacred music as well as music for the stage. He left three collections of music for keyboard, with the opus numbers 1 to 3. The Opus 3 comprises sonatas for keyboard with accompaniment of violin; these are omitted in the recording by Chiara Minali. Each of the other two collections, printed in Venice in 1780, consists of six sonatas in three movements, largely in the order fast - slow - fast. They are written in the then common galant idiom; the right hand dominates and the left hand is reduced to an accompanying role, playing the common figures, such as Alberti and drum basses. Minali plays a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord of 1638, which may seem a rather odd choice, considering the time of composing. An 18th-century Italian instrument would have been a more logical option. Minali added two pieces to these two sets of sonatas, a Tema e Variazioni and a Pastorale, which have been preserved in manuscript. For the Pastorale, she turns to the organ, the same instrument she plays in the Spergher recording. As this is the only organ piece and the other items are all perforned at the harpsichord, the listener is advised to dose these pieces and not listen to these discs at a stretch. My reservations with regard to the performances of Spergher's sonatas go for this production as well. That said, the recording of Grazioli's keynoard works is certainly justified, as he is part of an aspect of Italian music history that is little known.

Lastly another composer, of whom only very few may have ever heard: Ferdinando Gasparo Turrini (1745-1820) [5]. He was born in Salò at the Lake Garda, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice. In 1766 he settled in Padua, where he worked as organist at a church, and then moved to Brescia, where he was active mainly as a teacher. In 1773 he lost his eyesight; since then he dictated his compositions to his pupils. It seems that he left a relatively large and versatile oeuvre of vocal and instrumental music, but little of that is known. The sonatas recorded by Michele Barchi also appear on disc for the first time. It concerns two collections of six sonatas each. One was dedicated to the Genuese patrician Carlo Spinola; the printed edition omits the year of publication, but it is assumed that it dates from 1779. All the sonatas comprise two movements; only the sixth, in the unusual key of D flat, has three. The other set was dedicated to Vincenzo Fini, a Venetian nobleman; it has been preserved in a hand-written score. The titles of movements in this collection are rather unusual, such as lento ed affettuoso, il Basso sempre legato - trio: presto con disperazione and adagio pensiero or adagio ad imitazione del Violuncello. These fit the character of his music, since this is rather unconventional. Turrini's original ideas are quite surprising. It has been noted that there are some similarities between these sonatas and those by the young Beethoven. That is certainly not without foundation, and now and then one is also reminded of Haydn. However, assuming that Turrini knew the music of both of them, there is no imitation here. In comparison with his contemporaries Spergher and Grazioli, Turrini is by far the most original and creative. The sonatas are technically demanding; especially many fast movements require great technical skills. Barchi has them at his disposal in abundance; his performances are impressive, both technically and musically. He has opted for a performance at the harpsichord, which certainly seems legitimate for the sonatas of 1779. In the sonatas in manuscript I probably would have preferred the fortepiano; that way the similarities with Haydn and Beethoven may have become even more obvious. It would be interesting if another keyboard player would record them on the fortepiano, as these sonatas deserve to be much better known. For lovers of keyboard music this set of discs is undoubtedly a great and important addition to their collection. I sincerely hope that more works by Turrini will be brought to light, as he certainly had an unusually creative spirit.

[1] Pietro Domenico Paradies (1707-1791)
"Complete Sonatas for Harpsichord"
Alessandro Simonetto, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95867 (2 CDs) (© 2020) details

[2] Carlo Antonio Campioni (1720-1788)
"6 Harpsichord Sonatas Op. 4B"
Simone Stella, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95997 (© 2021) details

[3] Ignazio Spergher (1734-1808)
"Organ and Harpsichord Music"
Chiara Minali, harpsichord, organ
Brilliant Classics 95834 (3 CDs) (© 2019) details

[4] Giovanni Battista Grazioli (1746-1828)
"12 Harpsichord Sonatas Opp. 1 & 2"
Chiara Minali, harpsichord, organ
Brilliant Classics 95935 (2 CDs) (© 2020) details

[5] Ferdinando Gasparo Turrini (1745-1820)
"12 Sonatas for Harpsichord"
Michele Barchi, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95522 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

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