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Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692) Suonate a due violini op. 2, 1682
rec. 2015, Auditorium San Rocco, Carpi, Italy TACTUS TC632203 [63:26]
There was a time when violinists liked to include a ciaccona by a composer with the name of Vitali in their recitals. Modern research has cast doubt on its authenticity. If it was indeed written by a composer of that name, it certainly was not the best-known of them, Giovanni Battista, but rather his son, Tomaso Antonio (1663-1745). Otherwise little of the oeuvre of either of them is known.
The present disc is the first in a series of recordings of Giovanni Battista's output, which on its turn is part of a larger project, aiming at exploring the large library of the Este family. Many music lovers will immediately recognize the name of Este as it was a dynasty of rulers and music patrons, which can be traced from the 9th to the 19th century. One of its best-known representatives was Duke Ercole I (1431-1505), who in the years 1503/04 was the employer of Josquin Desprez. At that time the family had its court in Ferrara. In the 16th century, his descendants had some major composers of their time in their service, such as Antoine Brumel and Adrian Willaert. Especially under the rule of Alfonso II (1559-1597), the court in Ferrara was famous for the performance of madrigals, drama and solo songs, to which the names of, for instance, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Giaches de Wert are connected. Alfonso died without a male heir, and his cousin Cesare claimed the title. But Pope Clement VIII challenged its legality and sent armed forces to seize the duchy for the papacy. The Este family retreated to Modena, part of the duchy, and made it to the new capital of their dominions.
The Biblioteca Estense reflects the interests of the respective rules of the ducal dynasty. "After the first traces from the fourteenth century onwards, the book collection of the House of Este, which was formed of literary, historical and artistic works since the time of Marquis Niccolò III, was increased, during the Humanistic and Renaissance period, by highly important manuscripts and valuable printed books." (booklet) During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the library was enriched, for instance with collections of books coming from religious institutions which were dissolved. In 1764, Francesco III turned the library into a public institution, and after the unification of Italy, it became the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, which exists until the present day.
The project around Vitali brings us to the second half of the 17th century, when Modena flourished under the rule of Francesco II, who was particularly fond of the violin. At this time music was given a particularly important role at various events at the court, such as weddings and official visits of foreign sovereigns. In 1674 Giovanni Battista Vitali entered Francesco's service as one of the vicemaestri di cappella, a position he held until his death. Vitali was born in Bologna, and was educated as a cellist. He was probably a pupil of Maurizio Cazzati, maestro di cappella of San Petronio. He played a crucial role in the development of the sonata, and especially the trio sonata. He was one of the founders of the famous Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. He was highly appreciated in his time. The booklet quotes the composer and theorist Giovanni Battista (Padre) Martini, who stated that "he devoted himself so lovingly to the study of music and of the cello instrument that with his compositions he aroused the admiration of the performers and composers of his age".
In his sonatas, Vitali links up with a development which his teacher Cazzati initiated. In the latter's late sonatas we find a more formal separation of movements, thematic expansion, incorporation of dance rhythms and a more frequent use of homophony. The same features manifest themselves in the sonatas op. 2 by Vitali. These pieces were intended for ecclesiastical use - they are early forms of the sonata da chiesa - but also for performance in domestic surroundings. This is probably reflected in the various ways the basso continuo is scored in this recording: in some pieces the harpsichord is used, in others the organ, and there are also some episodes in which the bass part is played on the cello, without the participation of a keyboard or plucked instrument. This was quite common at the time (as it was in the first half of the 18th century), but is largely ignored in our time.
The sonatas are rather short - only a few take more than six minutes - and comprise four to six movements in contrasting tempi: allegro, vivace, grave and largo. Some movements come without a tempo indication. Harmonic peculiarities manifest themselves especially in the slow movements, whereas a number of fast movements are fugal. In some of the slow movements the performers take the freedom to add material of their own, and overall they are not afraid to add ornaments to their parts. The pitch is a=440 Hz, and the temperament 1/6 meantone. The ensemble comprises two violins, cello, violone, plucked instruments (archlute, theorbo, guitar) as well as harpsichord and organ. This disc is a very promising start of what is a most interesting and important project. Vitali played a key role in the development of instrumental music and his oeuvre is rather badly represented on disc. The ensemble Italico Splendore delivers very fine performances, and I am looking forward to the next volumes of this project.