Friday, July 22, 2022

La mandola rediviva

The mandolin has played an important role in European music history. However, this is hardly reflected in today's performance practice. Now and then a piece for mandolin has been recorded, especially the Vivaldi concertos, but for a long time it hardly made an appearance at the concert platform. Even when historical performance practice aimed at reviving forgotten instruments, the mandolin was almost completely overlooked. Only a few specialists have dealt with the history and repertoire of the instrument. Since a few years, however, the tide seems to be turning. Several discs with music for mandolin, either solo or in ensemble, have been released.

Artemandoline [1] is one of several ensembles which entirely devote themselves to the mandolin repertoire. Its recording of Italian baroque mandolin sonatas attests to the backlog in the exploration of the repertoire for this instrument: five of the six sonatas in the programme are first recordings. The names of the composers were completely unknown to me: (Abbate) Ranieri Capponi, Niccolò Susier, Nicola Romaldi, Giovanni Pietro Sesto da Trento and Francesco Piccone. It speaks volumes that none of these are mentioned in the English music encyclopedia New Grove. The booklet includes a detailed history of the mandolin and mandolin playing, and there is also information about the composers, but very little is known about several of them. It is also worth mentioning that what is on offer here is only a small selection of a large repertoire. Music for mandolin is often assumed to be purely entertainment, and that is not entirely incorrect, but one-sided. Several sonatas performed here have something substantial to offer. One of them contains a fugue, several sonatas begin with a slow movement with the character of a toccata, with strong improvisational traits, and there is also a movement that is strongly reminiscent of a recitative. Musical entertainment can certainly be of good quality, and that's the case here. It is then the challenge to the performers to bring those qualities to the fore, and in this department Artemandoline is doing a very good job. This disc is an important contribution to the re-evaluation of an instrument that has been forgotten for too long.

The next disc is devoted to one of the best-known composers of the baroque period: Domenico Scarlatti [2]. The ensemble Pizzicar Galante recorded eleven sonatas, although Scarlatti did not leave a single mandolin sonata. His sonatas are rightly considered keyboard music, but around 25 of them are probably primarily designed for a melody instrument and basso continuo. In these sonatas, the upper part stands out from the other parts and also contains performance signs - for example with regard to ​​dynamics - which suggest a performance on a melody instrument. The violin has to be first choice to perform those parts. However, a library in France keeps a manuscript which includes the first movement of a sonata scored for mandolin and basso continuo. The mandolin was particularly popular in France in the second half of the 18th century. The ensemble's decision to present several sonatas in this line-up can be justified by the fact that in France between 1761 and 1783 at least thirty editions were printed in which the mandolin is mentioned as an alternative to other instruments such as the violin, pardessus de viole or transverse flute. Anna Schivazappa, who is also studying the mandolin at Sorbonne University in Paris, uses three different instruments. The differences in sound come clearly to the fore. Pizzicar Galante is not the first ensemble to present Scarlatti's sonatas on mandolin: in 2013 Brilliant Classics released a disc with Scarlatti sonatas in performances by Artemandoline. That disc included only six of the best-known sonatas. Pizzicar Galante plays them too, but adds five others. The interpretations are first class and this disc further attests to the qualities of the mandolin. Scarlatti and the mandolin are a perfect match.

With the third disc we return to unknown territory: there are probably very few music lovers who have ever heard of Giovanni Battista Gervasio [3]. Again, we have a composer here who has not found a place in New Grove. The years of his birth and death are not known, but he was born in Naples and specialized in the mandolin. He improved the four-course mandolin, which was first built in Naples. As a mandolin virtuoso he performed in many places across Europe: Paris, London, Frankfurt, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Vienna. He was also active as a teacher; among his pupils were members of the aristocracy. In 1767 he published a didactic work in Paris, Méthode très facile pour apprendre à jouer la Mandoline, which was used as a reference for several centuries. Only a few of Gervasio's compositions have been printed, and of these only the Sei duetti per due mandolini o due violini, Op. 5 have come down to us; they were published in Amsterdam after 1786. Other pieces are part of anthologies from the late 18th century. As we have seen, violin and mandolin were often considered alternatives, and that is not any different in case of these duets, as their title indicates. It is possible that duets were performed as part of public concerts, but they were usually conceived as pedagogical material, to be played by teacher and pupil. The six duets, recorded by De Bon Parole (consisting of Marco Giacintucci on the first mandolin, and Francesco Marranzino and Luca Dragani respectively on the second), are written in the galant idiom and comprise three movements. All six duets are in major keys, as was common in the galant style. These are very well-written sonatas and their pedagogical purpose guarantees that they are devoid of superficiality; this is serious stuff, both technically and musically. The fact that four of these sonatas take more than fifteen minutes is an indication of their weight. The three players deliver outstanding performances, which I have greatly enjoyed. I like the rhythmic suppleness and the clear differentiation between good and bad notes. These are gestural performances in the true sense of the word. Gervasio is an example of a composer who had a great reputation, but is largely forgotten, except among mandolin specialists. He deserves to be better known, and this set of discs is the ideal way to get to know him.

In the decades around 1800, the mandolin enjoyed great popularity, especially in Vienna and Paris. The next two discs, in which Beethoven's contributions to the mandolin repertoire are in the centre of attention, bear witness to that. He wrote them for Countess Josefine Clary-Aldingen in Prague. She was not only an excellent singer - Beethoven composed the concert aria Ah! perfido op. 65 for her - but also played the mandolin very well. She was what in the 18th century was called a Liebhaber; an aristocrat could not be a professional musician anyway. However, there were also mandolin virtuosos, and one of them was Bartolomeo Bortolazzi. Johann Nepomuk Hummel composed his Sonata in C, op. 37(a) for him, which is also included on both discs. Raffaele La Ragione and Marco Crosetto [4] also include one of Bortolazzi's own compositions, the Sonata in D, op. 9, which was written around 1804 in Leipzig. Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer [5] have extended their programme differently. First they play another piece by Beethoven: the Rondo in D, which has survived as a sketch. Only one melody part has survived, intended for either violin or mandolin. This was obviously a common alternative, since Hummel's sonata also mentions the violin as such. However, the conductor and composer Frank Löhr thinks that the parts are intended for the mandolin, as typical violin features are missing. He has attempted a reconstruction, creating a piano accompaniment which - as he himself admits - is highly speculative. But it is nice that the solo part of Beethoven's making can now be heard. Two other works take us to other parts of Europe. Born in Naples, Gabriele Leone was summoned to France by the Duke of Chartres. His Sonata in A, Op. 2, is a work in the galant style, but the central movement has dramatic features. The Sonata with Variations in C by the Portuguese composer Porto Feliziano is preserved at the National Library in Lisbon. It is written in the Italian style and the final movement is a theme with variations. Since the programmes of these two discs are partly different, they can be considered as complements rather than as competitors. However, there are some differences that should be mentioned. Anna Torge and Raffaele La Ragione both play a four-course mandolin in fifths. Under Anna Torge's hands, the sound is a bit sharper and more succinct. This may be due to the fact that La Ragione's mandolin has exclusively gut strings, while Anna Torge's instrument also has copper wrap and silver wrap strings. The choice of keyboard is often a problematic one. Beethoven mentions the harpsichord as a keyboard instrument, but it is questionable whether that was his first choice. La Ragione points to the dynamic markings in the Czech manuscript of Beethoven's Adagio ma non troppo in E flat, indicating that he had a fortepiano at his disposal in Prague. Hummel's sonata also mentions fortepiano and harpsichord as alternatives. The harpsichord was still widespread at that time, and it is probably mainly for commercial reasons that it was mentioned on front pages. A fortepiano is played in both recordings. In all of the pieces, Gerald Hambitzer plays an instrument made by Louis Dulcken from 1793 and owned by WDR Cologne. This is a suitable instrument for most pieces, but it is too old for the work of Porto Feliziano (1793-1863). Marco Crosetto plays a copy of a Walter piano in Beethoven, the other works are played on a copy of a Graf from 1819. In my opinion, the Walter would also have been suitable for Bortolazzi and Hummel. The performances of Hummel's sonata are not very different, unlike those of Beethoven's pieces. In the Sonatina in c minor, with the tempo marking adagio, Anna Torge's tempo is the most convincing; La Ragione is too fast here, as his tempo is something like an andante. With regard to ornamentation, however, he has the edge; Anna Torge is too economical. The playful character of the Sonatina in C comes off better with La Ragione, due to his choice of tempo, than in Torge's performance. However, I appreciate both recordings and I recommend them to any lover of music of the classical era.

[1] "Italian Baroque Mandolin Sonatas"
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439819362 (© 2021) details

[2] D Scarlatti: "Mandolin Sonatas"
Pizzicar Galante
Arcana A115 (© 2019) details

[3] Gervasio: "Sei duetti per due mandolini op. v"
De Bon Parole
Tactus TC 720790 (© 2022) details

[4] "Beethoven and his Contemporaries - Music for Brescian mandolin and fortepiano"
Raffaele La Ragione, mandolin; Marco Crosetto, fortepiano
Arcana A117 (© 2020) details

[5] "Mandolino e Fortepiano"
Anna Torge, mandolin; Gerald Hambitzer, fortepiano
CPO 555 112-2 (© 2018) details

Friday, July 1, 2022

Stradella: Three operas

After having recorded Alessandro Stradella's oratorios, Andrea De Carlo turned to his operas. Although they are not completely forgotten, only a few are available on CD to date. Stradella as a person is still shrouded in mystery. Although we know that he was murdered in 1682 due to a love affair, we have fragmentary information about the various phases of his life and career. 1639 was always mentioned as the year of his birth, but it is now known that he was born in 1643. The study of his operatic activities has long focused on the later phase of his career, when he was in Genoa (1678-1682). However, he started composing operas much earlier, when he was still in Rome. A letter from a Milanese aristocrat states that as early as 1672 Stradella was known as one of the few composers able to set a libretto to music within two weeks. This earned him a good amount of money. In 1677 he had to flee Rome. It is certain that by this time he had already composed three operas. Amare e fingere [1] is probably one of them. It is not certain that he is the composer, because it has been handed down in a copy that does not mention the composer's name. However, there are very strong indications of Stradella's authorship. The work consists of three acts. There are six roles; however, four of them present themselves with a different name. This is something that often happens in baroque operas, and is one of the reasons why the plot is often so difficult to follow. This is also the case here. However, in this particular case it also reflects the tenor of the work, as the title suggests - in English: "Love and pretend". Appearance and reality are mixed up and whoever appears to be a servant at first is actually a ruler. At the end, the servant Erinda sums it up as she looks at a chessboard and says: "Some will be king, some will be queen, but poor Erinda will always be just a pawn." She is the comic figure in this work; in the 17th century such characters were still part of opera. In the 18th century, when the opera seria arose, they were relegated to the intermezzi. The instrumental scoring is small: only two violins and basso continuo. The work is closely related to early baroque opera: there are long recitatives - which incidentally have little in common with the recitatives of later opere serie - and now and then short arias and duets that do not yet have a da capo; only sometimes at the end of an aria the opening line is taken up again. In most arias the singers are accompanied by the violins (aria con strumenti); in some, however, they only play the ritornellos (aria con ritornello). Act III includes an aria con strumenti e la chitarra, but we don't hear a guitar and the list of players doesn't mention such an instrument either. An aria in the first act is based on a basso ostinato. It seems that the work comes without an opening sinfonia, as the performance begins with a recitative by Fileno/Artebano, one of the main protagonists of the work. Musically this opera is very entertaining and one can understand why Stradella had a good reputation as a composer. In quality his operas are not inferior to his oratorios. That's why this recording deserves an unequivocal welcome, especially as the interpretation is excellent. It is the recording of the live performance at the Tage alter Musik in Herne (Germany) and the rehearsals preceding it. Unfortunately, because of that some cuts were thought to be necessary. I didn't notice any background noise; either the listeners have behaved in an exemplary manner or the recording staff has done a great job. The performance was not staged; even so, the work's dramatic character comes off to full extent and there is a good interaction between the singers. Both dramatically and stylistically this recording is entirely convincing.

La Doriclea [2] is also one of the operas that Stradella composed in Rome. In this case his authorship is certain, as it is mentioned in an inventory from 1705, along with around 50 other volumes of music written by him. The author of the libretto may have been Flavio Orsini, a member of an aristocratic family with whom Stradella was friends. This makes it all the more remarkable that in this libretto the dividing line between social classes is crossed. There are two lovers: Lucinda (soprano) and Celindo (tenor), who belong to the upper class, and Doriclea (soprano) and Fidalbo (alto), who both belong to the middle class. There are also two lower-class comical characters, Delfina (alto) and Giraldo (bass). The two couples are plagued by jealousy, which causes much confusion, especially when Doriclea disguises herself as a man in Act II. In the end it is Delfina who prevents the worst - when Fidalbo decides to kill his lover Doriclea - and also manages to win over Giraldo, who always considered her too old and too ugly. That she, despite her low position, talked to Fidalbo was unheard of at the time. Andrea De Carlo points out in the libretto that Stradella, although composing his operas for an aristocratic audience, liked to poke fun at the habits of the aristocracy of his day. The stylistic features are largely the same as in the opera Amare e fingere just discussed. The arias are mostly short and have no da capo, and the accompaniment is limited to two violins and basso continuo. The social difference between the two pairs of lovers and the two 'low' characters is expressed in the fact that Delfina and Giraldo are only accompanied by basso continuo in their arias. Incidentally, the arias are particularly beautiful, as are the strikingly large number of duets. They are often based on a dance rhythm. This is nicely emphasized in the interpretation of the ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. In any case, Stradella's opera is in the best of hands with these interpreters. I have very much enjoyed this performance, because of Stradella's fine music, with quite some variation, and because of the excellent performances by the singers and instrumentalists. I would particularly like to mention Riccardo Novaro, whose account of the role of Giraldo is simply brilliant.

The third production takes us to Genoa, where Stradella worked the last years of his life and where he was murdered in 1682. Il Trespolo tutore [3] is a commedia per musica in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. There are no characters from the upper class here; all the protagonists belong to the middle and lower classes. Again, love it is central subject, and once again this is something that causes utter confusion due to changes in appearance. Stradella characterized the libretto as "ridiculous but beautiful"; In his view, Genoa's music lovers "had a taste for ridiculous things". It is questionable whether this can still be understood today. Humor is also a very personal thing. Anyway, the whole thing did never make me even smile. Here, too, there are beautiful but short arias and duets. However, the largest part of this work consists of recitatives, and that might not be easy for today's audiences to digest, especially since comedy lacks drama and suspense. It's quite theatrical, but that doesn't really come off in a performance without staging and acting. I am not sure that a work like this will survive, unless it is presented in a staged performance; a DVD production would have been more appropriate. I got a bit bored after a while. However, that is not due to the performance; on the contrary. All the singers deliver excellent interpretations and the main characters are perfectly cast with Roberta Mameli and Riccardo Novari. The ensemble Mare Nostrum is outstanding. Andrea De Carlo has developed into a Stradella specialist, who has given us some excellent recordings of his oratorios and operas. I am looking forward to future productions of vocal music by Stradella.

[1] Amare e fingere
Silvia Frigato (Erinda), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina/Clori), soprano; José Maria Lo Monaco (Oronta/Celia), mezzo-soprano; Chiara Brunello (Silvano), contralto; Luca Cervoni (Coraspe/Rosalbo), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Artabano/Fileno), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A493 (© 2021) details

[2] La Doriclea
Emöke Baráth (Doriclea/Lindoro), soprano; Giuseppina Bridelli (Lucinda), mezzo-soprano; Gabriella Martellacci (Delfina), contralto; Xavier Sabata (Fidalbo), alto; Luca Cervoni (Celindo), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Giraldo), baritone; Il Pomo d'Oro/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A454 (© 2018) details

[3] Il Trespolo tutore
Silvia Frigato (Ciro), Roberta Mameli (Artemisia), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina), soprano; Rafal Tomkiewicz (Nino), alto; Luca Cervoni (Simona), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Trespolo), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A475 (© 2020) details