Tuesday 14 July 2020

Joyful and imaginative: written for a late-18th century English aristocrat, Tommaso Giordani trios for violin, viola da gamba & fortepiano prove delightful finds,

Tommaso Giordani Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, Op. 30, Antonin Kammel Sonata in C major, Op. 1, no. 1; Luchkow Stadlen Jarvis Trio; Marquis
Tommaso Giordani Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, Op. 30, Antonin Kammell Sonata in C major, Op. 1, no. 1; Luchkow Stadlen Jarvis Trio; Marquis

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
These unusual late examples of music written for the viola da gamba, written by a London & Dublin-based Italian composer for an English gamba-playing aristocrat, prove to be delightful finds

London was something of an attraction for Continental musicians during the 18th century because of the city's reputation for being able to make an artist's fortune owing to the amount of music going on and the way that much of the musical activity in the city happened on a commercial or quasi-commercial basis.

The Giordani family, originally from Naples, arrived in London in the 1750s and included Tommaso, a composer, his brother Francesco, a dancer, and a number of singers. From 1753 to 1756 the family performed burlettas at Covent Garden, including one by Tommaso. By 1764 the family had settled in Dublin where Tommaso Giordani was musical director of the Smock Alley Theatre, where he produced the first opera seria in Ireland, L'eroe Cinese by Giuseppe Bonno (1711-1788) as well as launching his own composing career, and from thenceforth Tommaso Giordani's career would be split between London and Dublin. He composed for the stage, wrote songs and keyboard pieces as well as at least one oratorio. He died in Dublin in 1806, and amongst his pupils count John Field (1782-1837) who went on to influence Chopin and Schumann; an intriguing legacy. Giordani's best known work is the song Caro mio ben which he wrote for the castrato Giusto Tenducci (who moved to Ireland to sing at Smock Alley Theatre with Giordani).

On this disc from the Luchkow Stadlen Jarvis Trio (Paul Luchkow, violin, Sam Stadlen, viola da gamba, Michael Jarvis, fortepiano), on the Canadian Marquis label, we hear Tommaso Giordani's three trios for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano alongside a trio by Antonin Kammell.

Gioardani's sonatas were published in 1782 (when Giordani was in London) as Three Sonatas for the Piano-Forte or Harpsichord with Obligato Accompaniments for the Flute or Violin, and Viola da Gamba or Tenor, where tenor is the name commonly used for viola. That the viola da gamba is listed first implies it is the composer's preferred instrument, yet it was very much going out of fashion and could hardly be counted on to bring in sales of the pieces. Whilst contemporaries may have regarded the trios as being for viola, the dedication gives us some hint as to Giordani's thinking. They are dedicated to Vicountess Althorp (Lavinia Spencer (1762-1831)), whose portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds is on the cover of the disc. As she had married Viscount Althorp in March 1782, the publication dates invites speculation that they were a wedding gift. Giordani may have known her father, Charles Bingham, Earl of Lucan, in Ireland and in 1774 Giordani had published a set of flute sonatas dedicated to him and the Earl seems to have been a noted amateur of the flute. We know that Lavinia played the gamba, and we also know that the Spencers did likewise as Lavinia's mother-in-law, Countess Spencer was a keen gamba player.

In their wonderfully informative article in the CD booklet, Sam Stadlen and Michael Jarvis point out that whilst the viola da gamba part lies nicely 'under the hand' for a viola player, it is in places fiendishly difficult on the gamba and lies very high (leading us to suspect that Giordani worked the pieces out on the more conventional viola!). Whilst they were advertised as being with obligato accompaniments for violin and viola da gamba, these are anything but simple accompanied sonatas. Evidently they are more complex in texture than many of Giordani's other sonatas, and you do wonder at what they would sound like with piano alone. Mighty strange, I think, as the two instruments are often independent of the keyboard, both are virtuosic solo voices within a texture in which the distinction between soloist and accompaniment is much less clearly delineated.

There is an English precedent for this sort of viola da gamba virtuosity as the composer Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) was a noted viola da gamba player and was resident in London from 1764 where he would both play the gamba and create the famous concert series with JC Bach. We know Giordani's music was played at the concerts and the two composers may have known each other.

They are completely delightful pieces, and the three performers here clearly revel in the delightful textures which Giordani creates and Stadlen's playing gives no hint that the writing for viola da gamba is tricky. Each of the three sonatas is in the standard three-movement format of fast, slow, fast, with joyous fast movements and elegant slow ones. Giordani's writing is always inventive and the interplay between the instruments benefits from the differences in the instruments' timbre, with the violin and the viola da gamba often playing in octaves. There is a real sense of enjoyment in these performances, a lovely feeling of interplay between Luchkow, Stadlen and Jarvis

The extra work on the disc is a trio by the Bohemian composer Antonin Kammell. Kammell came to London in 1765 and was part of the Bach, Abel circle, his music featured in the Bach-Abel concerts and Kammell may have studied in London with Bach. Intriguingly, his music also featured in the Spencer's library, hinting that Lavinia or her mother-in-law may have played this trio as well.

The trio's next CD, Fashionably Late, will concentrate on music from the Bach-Abel concert series with works by JC Bach and Abel. They have just recorded a video of music by Bach and Abel which is available on-line until 17 July 2020. There is a trailer on YouTube, with details of how to buy tickets and get access to the concert.

This is very much a forgotten corner of the repertoire, some of the last works written in the 18th century for the viola da gamba. The links to Lavinia Spencer (the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was her husband's sister) provide a tantalising glimpse of society, and the joy and engagement in these performances give us a sense of the fun she must have had playing them. With the interest in period performance, there is no reason at all why these pieces should not be played more often. A delightful discovery.

Tommaso Giordani (1738-1806) - Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, Op. 30
Antonin Kammell (1730-1784/85) - Sonata in C major, Op. 1, no. 1
Luchkow Stadlen Jarvis Trio (Paul Luchkow violin, Sam Stadlen viola da gamba, Michael Jarvis fortepiano)
Recorded in October 2018, Chapel of the New Jerusalem, Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

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