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Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)
Violin Sonatas op. 5
Sonata, Op. 5 No. IV in D major [6:12]
Sonata, Op. 5 No. I in A major [9:04]
Sonata, Op. 5 No. III in C major [11:46]
Sonata, Op. 5 No. II in F sharp minor [9:14]
Sonata for violin solo in B flat major [8:42]
Sonata, Op. 5 No. V in B flat major [7:02]
Sonata, Op. 5 No. VI in D minor [7:54]
Anton Steck (violin); Christian Rieger (harpsichord); Markus Möllenbeck (cello)
rec. 5-7 January, 2005, WDR Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal Cologne, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 225-2 [59:59]

Britain was the beneficiary of Geminiani’s exile from Italy: born in Lucca, he was one of the several pupils of Corelli who left Rome on the latter’s death in 1713. By 1714 Geminiani was living in London - where it is certain he played alongside Handel. There his expertise and familiarity with Italian violin techniques and developments in string writing and playing were passed on to English players, and to audiences eager to enjoy such new, fashionable styles.
Geminiani’s output was relatively small – especially if judged by that of such contemporaries as Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel. Yet he saw his role more as an arbiter of taste and a distiller of compositions that shunned excessive virtuosity and extraneous show. Not for Geminiani the wholesale ‘borrowing’ and repurposing of Handel. He saw himself as writing in a more rarefied sphere and developing a specific genre for connoisseurs and specialists. Nor did the fact that Geminiani’s music never achieved the following that Handel’s did worry him too much: he had a ‘second career’ as an art dealer, mounter of exhibitions; he owned his own concert hall in Dublin.
But neither are these Opus 5 sonatas - nor, for that matter, any other of Geminiani’s works - the work of a part-time dilettante. They command concentration and a good degree of understanding in order to be appreciated to the full. By the latter stages of his career, the composer seems to have known that his work was drifting away from popular taste; he concentrated instead on his theoretical writings – and on composing, as is the case with these later pieces, as he wanted to.
In fact these sonatas, Opus 5, were first published – in 1746, in Paris and The Hague – for cello; although violin versions appeared the same year. The London versions (for cello, then violin) appeared a year later and it’s the latter that’s used in this recording. They’re in the sonata da chiesa four movement format: slow – fast – slow – fast and from the (very short) first movement of the first track on this CD (Opus 5 Number IV), it’s plain that this is a banquet of meticulously conceived and prepared delicacies, not a quick ‘take-away’. The writing, for example, of the next movement – although a fast one - in the same sonata is pensive, intricate and written in such a way as to insist on active listening as themes are developed and textures exchanged, especially between solo violin and the three instruments together.
You’ll also notice that the harpsichord has a more active role than that of continuo - although it’s also that. Indeed, when taken together with the huge variety of tempi - often within one movement - the music may strike you as having a tinge of romanticism when the rest of the musical world was heading for Classical order. But these are employed by Geminiani to ensure that there is always momentum, interest, contrast. It’s music redolent of C.P.E. Bach in that respect – and, frankly, every bit as inventive and satisfying.
Four aspects of the playing of Steck, Rieger and Möllenbeck strike you: first, a crystalline freshness and superb confidence. Listen to the way the ensemble passages of the final, allegro, movement of Number I in A major (tr.8) and the second, presto, movement of Number II in F sharp minor (tr.14) dance, swirl, unfold, return and yet stay completely within your ‘angle of vision’… the flourishes are restrained yet full of life; the balance and unison playing excellent and the attention to nuances of tempi perfect.
Then their consummate playing both distances musicians and music just as far as it’s necessary to see its structure and intended impact. At the same time it draws them into its intricacies. The result is that they are compelled to reveal and caress every nuance. This is clear, for example, in the peroration of Number VI (tr.28). A sense of deep satisfaction ensues.
Over and above the manifest professionalism and musicianship of these three players, their approach so finely and expertly attuned to detail must also be traced to Geminiani’s own intentions: “I do not wish to please the ears only. It is essential to express emotions, to rouse the imagination, inspire thought and curb the passions.” And it is precisely to that wonderful Enlightenment ideal that – through perceptive and expressive playing at every corner – that Steck, Rieger and Möllenbeck so admirably adhere. This is stimulating, rewarding, highly enjoyable music beautifully assembled and presented and can be safely and warmly recommended for anyone who will trust themself to Geminiani’s sure hands.
The solo sonata in B flat major is of somewhat doubtful provenance but makes yet another contrast as included here and can be enjoyed in its own right.
Two of the instruments were made in the eighteenth century: Steck’s violin is by Alessandro Gagliano (1701, Naples) and Möllenbeck’s cello is by Simon Gilbert (1756, Metz); Rieger plays a modern harpsichord by David Sutherland after Christian Zell (1724, Hamburg).
Markus Möllenbeck’s liner notes are informative, although the English translation is a little laboured. The recording is well balanced and mellow; the quantity of music – an hour - reasonably generous.
Mark Sealey


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