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Attilio ARIOSTI (1666-1729)
The Stockholm Sonatas 1: Lezione I in E flat major [10.10]; Lezione II in A major [8.44]; Lezione III in E minor [12.59]; Lezione IV in F major [11.17]; Lezione V in E minor [8.25]; Sonata 6 in D major [8.37]; Sonata 7 in D major [8.02]
Thomas Georgi (viola d’amore); Lucas Harris (theorbo, archlute, baroque guitar); Joelle Morton (viola da gamba, great bass viol)
rec. May 2005, Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, Canada. DDD
BIS CD 1535 [69:14]

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Everything you ever needed to know about the viola d’amore is here reflected in the friendly but scholarly and detailed booklet notes by Thomas Georgi himself. The instruments are pictured, helpfully, on the back of the booklet and described inside. They are an Eberle of 1772 with seven sympathetic strings, a six-stringed Matthias Thir of 1721 and another Eberle of 1783 with six sympathetic strings. Each then is somewhat different.

Ariosti was considered in his time to be one of the leading composers of his not untalented generation. Rameau even quoted a particularly interesting passage of harmony from one of Ariosti’s operas in his book on music theory. Ariosti was born in Italy and died, like Handel, though a few years after him, in London. He was an all-round musician whose talents included being an organist. He produced two collections of pieces for viola d’amore comprising 21 pieces in all. Only Graupner wrote more for the instrument. But why are they called the ‘Stockholm’ Sonatas; a beautiful picture of that city, after all, adorns the CD booklet.

Johann Helmich Roman (1694-1758) has been called ‘The father of Swedish music’. He was a pupil of Ariosti and copied his master’s scores just as artists did in the Renaissance. Georgi has delved into Roman’s manuscripts. It is thanks to these copies that we know of this music at all. They only circulated in manuscript copies and the rest are now lost.

There are two collections then, one entitled ‘A Collection of Lessons for the Viol d’amore’ of 1724 and the other ‘Recueil de Pièces pour la Viol d’amour’. The CD booklet tells us clearly which is which and details the instruments involved in each. The Lessons appear in both sources. After the first five lessons Georgi has concocted or, I should say, reconstructed remaining pieces from the Lessons in the way they might have been before the lessons were finally assembled. These are the two ‘Sonatas’ which he has numbered 6 and 7. Individual movements are given dance titles, like Minuet and Corrent. Georgi explains in the notes how he has done this and why he chose to use specific instruments for certain pieces. It’s all rather complicated. For now I will just say that we have therefore twenty-six tracks constituting seven sets, suites or sonatas depending on your terminology. Are they worth hearing?

The style is difficult to pin down. If you know Buxtehude’s chamber music then add a touch of Alessandro Scarlatti and a few interesting harmonies and you have something like it. 

In his notes, Georgi comments that “after surmounting these hurdles (i.e., tuning and choice of instruments) I found a composer with inimitable powers of expression”. He adds that “Ariosti is at his best in deeply felt slow movements” and he cites the cantabile in Lesson 2. I would also add the lyrical opening Adagio of the third lesson. Georgi mentions the sheer joy of the final Giga that ends the Sonata Number 7 and also ends the CD. The happy little Giga that ends the 5th Lesson is also good fun. It’s worth adding as well that the musical interest does not lie alone with the upper part; the gamba has much of interest and often imitates the upper part. They are accompanied by either the archlute with its delicious bass resonating strings or the rather sober theorbo or the guitar which has a little more attack. The sonatas either fall into a three movement fast-slow-fast pattern or four movements with more dance-like elements or possibly adding a second slow movement, each lesson/sonata being slightly different.

Considerable scholarship has been involved in putting these pieces together. The music is treated to beautiful, well-shaped and authentically-aware performances and these have been captured in an excellent recording which is warm yet with space around it. Despite these virtues one must say that this is, at the end of the day, second-rate music; at best suitable for a sleepy late evening with a bottle of Chianti to hand. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you shout, and quite right too. So if you enjoy the music of this period especially its somewhat queer corners then you should seek out this disc without further ado. 

Gary Higginson 



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