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Giovanni Battista VIOTTI (1755-1824)
Six Quatuors Concertants, Op. 3 (c. 1820): No. 1 in A major [13:07]; No. 2 in C major [14:31]; No. 3 in F major [09:48]; No. 4 in B flat major [10:24]; No. 5 in E flat major [14:64]; No. 6 in E major [14:07]
L'Arte del Suono: (Lola Bobesco (violin); Jean-Michel Defalque (violin); Dominique Huybrechts (viola); Sylvie Mariage (cello))
rec. dates not provided and location of venue unclear. DDD
TALENT DOM 2910 46 [76:31]

One of the joys of reviewing for Musicweb International is the diversity of releases that come across the desk. Often the works of composers that one would not usually choose to play can bring significant rewards. The Italian-born composer Giovanni Battista Viotti is one such case.
On this Classic Talent release the performers are the Belgium-based ensemble L'Arte del Suono. In the absence of detailed information one might deduce that the recording was made in Brussels in the early 1990s. It is claimed that these are world premiere recordings.     
I have heard several of Viotti’s works over the years but currently have none in my collection. I have a complete 1922 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians that thankfully provides some information on Viotti as the Classic Talent booklet notes are rather basic. Immediately we start with a quandary as this Grove and some other sources give Viotti’s year of birth as 1753 whilst others including these booklet notes give the date as 1755.
Viotti is best known as the composer of a substantial output including twenty-nine violin concertos. For many years he was primarily represented in the concert hall and recording studio almost exclusively by one work: the Violin Concerto No. 22; to a lesser extent the Violin Concerto No. 23 was sometimes heard. These days, in addition to the violin concertos, other works may occasionally be encountered in the recording catalogues: the Flute Quartets, Op. 22; Harp Concerto, Cello Concerto in C; Adagio and Rondeau for Cello and Orchestra; Violin Sonatas, Op. 4; Six Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo, Op. 4; two Sinfonia Concertantes F major and B flat major for two violins and orchestra; Six Serenades for two violins, Op. 23 and the Sonata for Harp in B flat major.
Viotti showed an early aptitude for music. He was a child prodigy and was playing a violin at the age of eight. He composed his first Violin Concerto aged fourteen. In 1780 he accompanied his teacher Pugnani, the eminent violinist and director of the Royal Chapel in Turin, on an extensive European tour, which included visiting Switzerland, Germany, Poland and Russia. He successfully performed in France in 1782 at one of the famous Paris Concert Spirituels. Biographer for Grove E. Heron-Allen wrote that in 1783 “Viotti’s reputation as the greatest violinist of his day in France was firmly established.” In 1784 Queen Marie-Antoinette appointed Viotti as her court musician and in 1788 he became joint manager of the Théâtre de Monsieur in Paris where he was responsible for many excellent opera performances. For a time he resided in Paris sharing a house with his fellow countryman the influential composer Cherubini. Undoubtedly they must have imparted strong influences on each other. Viotti left Paris in 1792 and settled in London performing at the Salomon Concerts and conducting opera performances. Between 1798 to 1822 Viotti’s often complicated life was spent toing and froing between London and Paris. The Italian-born composer died in London in 1824.     
Viotti’s chamber music has been largely ignored for many years and was reckoned by musicologist David Ewen as, “terra incognita”, yet many accomplished judges consider his scores to have a high creativity of sophistication and attraction. Music writer Vernon Duke has expressed the view that Viotti’s chamber music is, “in the very first rank of eighteenth-century chamber music.” This set of six String Quartets, Op. 3, with the exception of the first and third, follows the traditional three movement form. Lively allegros are positioned either side of a lyrical and dance-like slow movement that provides a centrepiece. These scores strongly remind me of the String Quartets that his older and famous contemporary Haydn had been writing but without their depth of quality.
Led by Rumanian-born Lola Bobesco, L'Arte del Suono are clearly at home in this rarely performed Classical repertoire. The unity of ensemble is however not always entirely perfect. Not assisted by a challenging acoustic their timbre can feel a touch sharp, requiring a more pleasing bloom. However their performances come across as a tender labour of love which more than makes up for the technical imperfections. I was impressed with their judicious choice of tempi especially in the andante movements where they sensibly avoid any tendency to linger unnecessarily. Also gratifying are their vigorous and forthright allegros.
The recording probably made in the early 1990s is a touch bright but has a reasonable balance. I found the annotation rather basic and lacking in essential detail. Those who enjoy the chamber works of Haydn, Mozart and Cherubini may wish to explore these fascinating and rewarding works.
Michael Cookson


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