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Giovanni GIORNOVICH (1747-1804)
‘London’ Concertos
Concerto No 15 for violin and orchestra (1790) [20:57]
Concerto No 13 in A for violin and orchestra (1790) [18:06]
Air: Villageoises de Julie (theme and five variations) [6:06]
Concerto No 14 in A for violin and orchestra (1789-90) [20:34]
Bojan Čičić (violin)
The Illyria Consort
rec. 2018, St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, UK
All tracks are premiere recordings.
DELPHIAN DCD34219 [65:46]

According to violinist Bojan Čičić, who grew up in Zagreb, Ivan Mane Jarnović – Giovanni Giornovich’s name in Croatian – was regularly described as the nation’s very own Mozart. Giornovich, in fact, was known across Europe by some thirty variants of his family name and was one of most prominent and popular violin virtuosos in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Despite this, a lot remains unknown about his actual biography, but, as with many of the virtuosos later in the century, a mystifying background and possibly even some loosely demonic powers, were always good for business. It seems he was baptised in Palermo, of Croatian descent, though it’s unlikely he ever set foot in that country. He was probably a French citizen, but spent a cosmopolitan existence touring Europe, finally ending up in St Petersburg, where died.

Giornovich’s concertos for violino principale and orchestra generally follow the prevailing three-movement design, and are usually scored for strings, horns and oboes in pairs. Added variety is sometimes achieved by tweaking this scoring, which, in fact, happens here in Concerto No 13, where oboes are replaced by flutes.

His first movements are examples of early classical-sonata-form, second movements are often simple romances, but occasionally they are in two parts, as in Concerto No 14, which concludes this CD. The finales are usually more dazzling and light-hearted rondeaus in French style, which might include scherzo-like themes, and more melodious sections, some of which may also make use of some popular, or folk-like tunes.

It is known that Giornovich’s concertos were performed in London as early as 1788, so that, even before his arrival in the city, his music was already known to local audiences, while reports of his virtuosity created even more interest. Initially he financed his first London publication himself, but, as his fame spread, publishers in the British Isles began to produce editions of some of his violin concertos, and chamber music. Meanwhile, he was performing in all the major venues in the capital.

Three of his violin concertos are recorded on this new release, beginning with No 15 in E, which immediately bucks the trend by being in four movements. It opens with a business-like ‘Allegro vivace’ followed by a slow and dainty ‘Romance: un poco Andante’ in the subdominant key of A major. It is at this point that the composer inserts the extra movement, a ‘Grazioso Minuetto’ back in the home key, which is as ‘graceful’ as the tempo marking would suggest. A more virtuoso element then appears in the solo part, before the next section in the tonic minor. The major key then returns and the music comes to rest on the dominant chord, before leading straight into a somewhat short, yet still virtuosic finale, marked ‘Presto’, which is all about lightness and good humour, especially in the closing section, where Giornovich cranks up the tempo to great effect. Perhaps the concerto does have only three movements after all, the final rondeau merely being preceded by a short minuet, to which it is inextricably linked.

Concerto No 13, which follows, does have three movements – and, unusually, opens with one in triple time, marked ‘Allegro Spirito’, rather than the more conventional duple-time format. The helpful and informative booklet suggests that the composer might be basing the movement on a folk song or two, given that British journals often mentioned Giornovich’s penchant for inserting folk tunes into his concertos, especially those from north of the border, which were especially popular at the time. An appealing ‘Romance: Andantino’ in the tonic minor follows, which again could suggest an original vocal source. There is the briefest violin cadenza before the opening section returns, but instead of reaching a close, it moves straight into the catchy ‘Rondo’ finale, which is built around a horn-call theme. Things proceed much as expected, until the ending. Here the soloist repeats the initial rondo theme, more quietly each time, interrupted by loud chords from the orchestra, until it comes to rest over the home chord. However, instead of ending on the tonic note (A), it closes on the dominant (E), which would normally lead audiences to suspect that there was still a little more to come before any final resolution is reached.

However, it has been suggested that this is by way of Giornovich saying to his admiring public, “that’s all for now, folks, but there’ll be a new programme at the next concert!” Ending on the dominant, would still allow him to go straight into an unscheduled encore – often a short theme and variations just for violin and basso – to keep everyone happy in the meantime. In fact, the composer has a number of variations on popular songs in his output, many of which happen to be in the key of A, in which, for example, Concertos 13 and 14 are written.

To that end, the finale leads straight into a popular song, here played by the solo violin without any bassline or other support. The Air: Villageoises de Julie, which was usually better-known as Lison dormait, was taken from the opera Julie (1772) by French composer Nicolas Dezde (1740-1798), where it opens the second act – Mozart even used it as the theme for his set of 9 Variations, KV 264. Giornovich’s five variations are in the manner of a free improvisation, as would no doubt have been the way he would have performed them at the time. Mainly of the melodic variety, his variations also allow further opportunities for technical display, even after the concerto has finished.

Concerto No 14 is apparently best known for the composer’s borrowing of Russian tunes, especially in the third movement, which is appropriately labelled as a ‘Rondo la russe’. The composer uses the popular Russian air Kamarinskaya, which can also be heard in the works of several other composers, including Joseph Haydn. Giornovich also incorporates another popular Russian melody in the slow movement, marked ‘Amoroso con expressione’, something which the Irishman John Field also did in his first piano concerto some ten years later. The opening ‘Allegro’ makes especially good use of the horns, which adds to the overtly jovial nature of the writing at the start, while still giving the soloist plenty of opportunity to display his virtuosity.

When the melancholic second movement in the minor key, begins, it provides effective contrast with what has just gone before. It still has a livelier middle section in the major, but this is short-lived, and a short cadenza leads back to the spirit of the start. It, too, ends on the dominant chord, and leads straight into the Russian-Rondo finale, which, like the first movement, is a cheerful and most entertaining movement, in which again the horns play a significant part in the orchestration. Some three minutes or so from the close, Giornovich pulls the tempo back, in preparation for a short violin cadenza, before the soloist leads off once more with the main theme. The solo writing gets more elaborate, and leads into a further short cadenza, and one more reprise of the theme, now taking the solo part higher still, before the concerto finally slows to a halt with a decidedly robust close.

Bojan Čičić proves a highly compelling and convincing soloist throughout, playing both with passion and real exhilaration, and, most importantly, with a seemingly innate empathy for Giornovich’s music, and especially the way it might have been played at the time. For their part, the Illyria Consort provides the perfect accompaniment, achieving an ensemble of the very highest order, and maintaining impeccable balance with the soloist at every dynamic level. This comes as no surprise, however, when the first violin section is being led by Persephone Gibbs, herself a highly-experienced soloist and scholar. The recording is first-rate, too, making good use of stereo separation, and faithfully capturing the abundantly-resonant acoustic of the Oxford venue.

The CD booklet concludes by saying that, despite his popularity, Giornovich’s fame scarcely survived his death – the fate of so many violin virtuosos, as new generations arrived on the scene to take their place. On the evidence heard here, it would certainly seem that the passage of time has done a real disservice to Giovanni Giornovich, and his appealingly-original music.

It’s now time to put this right, and this excellent new CD, together with Delphian’s support and backing, should be a definite step in the right direction. I’m already looking forward to hearing some more of this fascinating composer’s music before too long.

Philip R Buttall

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