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

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