There are numerous red threads weaving together the works recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album. As is well known, the term sonata literally means “something to be played”, in Italian, while its cognate term cantata means “something to be sung”. Along with toccata (“something to be touched”, i.e. to be played on a keyboard instrument) these three genres are among the leading creations of Italian Baroque music, and would inspire countless musicians both in the Peninsula and abroad. None of these genres was one of Vivaldi’s favourites: at least numerically, the Red Priest clearly preferred Concertos to Sonatas. However, his extraordinary knowledge of the secrets of violin playing, largely derived from his long and assiduous frequentation of concertos, could easily translate into skillful and creative works in the genres of the Sonatas.
One element which many of Vivaldi’s Sonatas have in common is their “chamber music” quality. Indeed, in his works the distinction between “church sonata” and “chamber sonata” is blurred and purposefully unclear. The slow opening movements seem to suggest the classical sequence of the church sonata. However, frequently, the abstract and contrapuntal movements one expects when listening to this genre are missing, and replaced with dance movements which are quintessentially typical of the chamber sonata form.
Moreover, several of the Vivaldi pieces recorded here share an extrinsic feature, which is, however, significant from the viewpoint of their reception and transmission: their manuscript sources are found in various European and Italian cities, and their histories are connected with some pivotal figures in the cultural and musical field of their time. They therefore bear witness to the circulation of Vivaldi’s works beyond the borders of water of the Venetian laguna, and to the appreciation his music enjoyed among the connoisseurs.
Reviewing the works in detail, we may start by considering Sonata RV 26, which is the instrumental work more closely associated with the genre of the church sonata among those recorded here. Here, in fact, the complex violin scoring allows the solo instrument to realize a contrapuntal texture which would normally be played by two instruments. By way of contrast, the bass seems reluctant to engage itself in the polyphonic fabric: while the violin scoring shrewdly employs the techniques and styles derived from the concerto style, the accompanying instrument seems to recede and to leave the stage to its companion.
These features are found, to an even higher degree, in the twelve Sonatas belonging in a compilation unearthed only in the 1970s by Michael Talbot. This collection has come to be known as the “Manchester Sonatas”, even though their original composition and destination had no relationship with the English city.
The Manchester collection comprises some Sonatas which have not been preserved elsewhere, others which are found also in other manuscripts, and others some movements of which are found in other sources, but may have been preserved in modified forms. Among the “Manchester” Sonatas which are also found elsewhere is RV 12, the second of the collection. It is in fact known also in a Dresden manuscript containing works copied by Johann Georg Pisendel, one of the greatest violinists of his time, and the leading musician of the Dresden Court Orchestra. Along with his Prince, Pisendel had visited Italy in 1717, and they had enjoyed the warm and luxuriant welcome of the Serenissima. Pisendel had taken the opportunity to gather some of the most significant works of the Venetian musicians, and to acquaint himself with both their style and their persons; in particular, Vivaldi dedicated several of his works to his German colleague, as a token of esteem and appreciation.
Shortly afterwards, this same Sonata found its way in the “Manchester” collection, which had been prepared as a portfolio destined for the music-loving Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who had been the patron of Arcangelo Corelli, another of the most revered violinists of the Baroque era. Following Ottoboni’s death, the manuscript collection was acquired by an Englishman, namely Edward Holdsworth. He was an erudite scholar who frequently travelled to the Continent, accompanying the young scions of aristocratic families in their grand tours. This particular acquisition, along with other similar ones, had been purchased by Holdsworth on behalf of his good friend Charles Jennes, known by many music lovers for having been the librettist of Handel’s Messiah.
From Jennens, the collection passed to other collectors and musicians, and it ended up in the library of a British musicologist, whose estate was auctioned at Sotheby’s after his death. The collection was purchased by the Manchester Library (and here is where Manchester eventually comes to the fore!), but remained unstudied for several years, until, once more, it was Michael Talbot who discovered, researched and discussed it.
In this manuscript, the third of the Sonatas recorded here is also found, i.e. RV 17a; its numbering is due to the fact that it is similar to, but not entirely coincident with, another Sonata known as RV 17. The main difference between the two concerns the third movement, which, in the case of RV 17a, coincides with the slow movement of a Concerto (RV 314) and is similar to another slow movement excerpted from a Cello Sonata (RV 47). Similar borrowings happen also in the case of Sonata RV 12, whose opening movement originated the slow movement of Concerto RV 582.
Different from the complex reception and transmission history of Vivaldi’s Sonatas, those by Tomaso Albinoni recorded here were published during his lifetime. Indeed, at the time of their appearance in print, the composer was just 23 years old, and humbly presented himself as “an amateur Venetian violinist”. That year 1694 would prove eventful for the young composer, whose first opera was premiered in the same year. The combination of the success of both productions guaranteed international fame to their composer. Moreover, Albinoni enjoyed great compositional freedom, since his social status allowed him the liberty of writing for his own pleasure, without worrying about teaching or impresarios, as happened to his contemporaneous and fellow citizen Vivaldi.
His Suonate a tre, op. 1, are already a ripe manifestation of his genius, even though the clear – inescapable – influence of Corelli is clearly observed. At the same time, Albinoni himself would play an important influence on no less a composer than Johann Sebastian Bach. Indeed, themes and subjects excerpted precisely from this op. 1 furnished the compositional material for the composition of some of Bach’s best fugues. Indeed, the title of “amateur violinist” would later be dropped by the composer, when his magnificent opuses 6, 7, 9 and 10 earned him pride of place among the musical elites of the continent.
Even here, in the first fruits of his talent, his compositional mastery is evident.
One has only to think to the surprising beginning of Sonata IV in G minor, with its touching and sorrowful melodies and bouncing, post-horn-like second movement; the third movement overflows with tenderness, in a Siciliano-like style; the brilliant syncopations of the last movement conclude the Sonata with a brisk and brilliant pace.
In the opening of Sonata V in C major, the style evolves in something partly akin to a Chorale, partly to a dance. The second movement has a very unusual subject, jumping and with many octave leaps. The third movement is a pleading duet; whilst the last sound like a typical Venetian festivity.
Even more unusual is the opening of Sonata VI, with dance-like features developing in tense dissonances and distensions. The second movement has a particularly fresh inspiration in its elaborate counterpoint. The third movement is reflective and solemn, and its gravity is soon forgotten thanks to the brilliancy of the finale.
Sonata VII has a pastorale-like beginning, whilst the second movement is chattering and seems to suggest the atmosphere of Goldoni’s comedies. The third movement, by contrast, is composed and sad. The concluding movement is joyful and picturesque, with hints of a rustic character.
Together, all of these pieces demonstrates the inexhaustible richness of Venice’s musical life, and of the beauty the Serenissima ceaselessly produced. They allow us a glimpse on the magnificent culture of the Republic, on the unique palette of splendour, nostalgia, irony and poetry which permeated – and still, to a point, pervades – the calli and campielli where these pieces were first heard.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Giorgio Sasso: After graduating with full marks and honors from the Conservatory of S. Cecilia in Rome and having obtained the diploma of honor from the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Giorgio Sasso embarked on a career that led him, as a soloist, into chamber ensembles and as solo violin in groups such as "Concerto Italiano", "Wiener Akademie", "Ensemble Barocco della Scarlatti", "Accademia Ottoboni" to perform in all continents. As a leader of the Insieme Strumentale di Roma he has made fifteen DVDs dedicated to G. Legrenzi, A. Scarlatti, A. Marcello, A. Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, T. Albinoni, E.F. Dall'Abaco, F. Carulli, D. Cimarosa, G. Paisiello, L. Leo, N. Porpora, all enthusiastically welcomed by the most accredited international critics.
Antonio Vivaldi: (b Venice, 4 March 1678; d Vienna, 27/8 July 1741). Italian composer. The most original and influential Italian composer of his generation, he laid the foundations for the mature Baroque concerto. His contributions to musical style, violin technique and the practice of orchestration were substantial, and he was a pioneer of orchestral programme music.
Tomaso Giovanni [Zuane] Albinoni
(b Venice, 8 June 1671; d Venice, 17 Jan 1750/51). Italian composer. His father, Antonio Albinoni, was a stationer and manufacturer of playing cards who owned several shops in Venice and some landed property. As well as completing his apprenticeship as a stationer, Tomaso, the eldest son, learnt the violin and took singing lessons; his teachers are not known. Despite his talent he was not tempted on reaching adulthood to seek a post in church or court, preferring to remain a dilettante – a man of independent means who delighted himself (and others) through music. As a composer he first had an unsuccessful flirtation with church music. A mass for three unaccompanied male voices is the sole survivor of this episode (the Magnificat in G minor ascribed to him is of dubious authenticity); juvenile infelicities abound, yet it clearly shows his penchant for contrapuntal pattern-weaving. In 1694 Albinoni had two successes in fields for which his musical training had probably better prepared him: an opera (Zenobia, regina de' Palmireni) was staged at the Teatro di SS Giovanni e Paolo at the beginning of 1694, and his op.1, 12 trio sonatas, was published by Sala. Instrumental ensemble music (sonatas and concertos) and secular vocal music (operas and solo cantatas) were to be his two areas of activity in a remarkably long career as a composer which terminated 47 years later with a prematurely entitled ‘oeuvre posthume’ (six violin sonatas, c1740) and the opera Artamene (1741).