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
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
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.