Felice Giardini

Giardini: 6 Sonatas for Flute & Harpsichord

Felice GIARDINI (1716-1796)
Sei Sonate di Cembalo con Violono o Flauto Traverso (1741)
Sonata No 1 in G [7:25]
Sonata No 2 in C [7:49]
Sonata No 3 in F [8:56]
Sonata No 4 in A [8:44]
Sonata No 5 in G minor [9:38]
Sonata No 6 in D [18:12]
Minuet con Variazioni in C [6:02]
ConSerto Musico (Mario Folena (transverse flute), Francesco Galligioni (cello), Paola Frezzato (baroque bassoon), Roberto Loreggian (harpsichord))
rec. December 2020, Presso Studio Rosso – Zanotto Strumenti, Trebaseleghe, Italy

In his enjoyable, ambitious and rewarding book Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style (2003), Daniel Heartz quotes (p.60) Charles Burney’s words about a performance of Antonio Sacchini’s opera La Contadina in corte, “the music was … full of … clearness, grace and elegant simplicity”. Burney’s words, as abbreviated by Heartz, might very well serve as a working definition of the ‘galant’ style – ‘defined’, as it were, in contrast to most of the music of the baroque era which preceded it. They would also serve as a description of the music of Felice Giardini as heard on this attractive and enjoyable disc. This is music which belongs (at least in terms of publication) to Giardini’s early years in London. In London, Giardini soon became (and long remained) an associate of Johann Christian Bach – who is discussed at some length in in chapter 8 of Heartz’s book, entitled ‘Three Apostles of the Galant Style: Johann Christian Bach, Paisiello, and Boccherini’.

Giardini had been born in Turin, the son of a French musician and his wife. He was soon being taught the violin (probably by his father) and when his musical gifts became clear he was, when still very young, sent to Milan, where he became a chorister in the Cathedral and studied violin, harpsichord and composition with Giuseppi Paladini; still not into his teens he returned to Turin and furthered his skills as a violinist by study with the violinist and composer Giovanni Battista Somis (1686-1763), solo violinist to the Turin court, who himself had been a pupil of Corelli. According to some accounts Giardini gave his first concert as a soloist in Milan at the age of 12. Soon after that he was playing in opera orchestras, first in Rome and then in Naples. Towards the end of the 1740s he decided to pursue a career as a soloist in northern Europe. He gave concerts in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, before making his London debut in 1750, where he immediately attracted a good deal of praise. After hearing Giardini’s frequent concerts alongside J. C. Bach and Carl Abel, Charles Burney declared, in his History, that the three of them “brought about a total revolution in our musical taste”. In much of what follows I am indebted to Simon McVeigh’s fascinating article ‘Felice Giardini: A Violinist in Late Eighteenth-Century London’ (Music and Letters, 1983, Vol. 64 (3/4), pp. 162-72). I will not repeat McVeigh extensively – any reader who wants more details of Giardini’s London career should consult McVeigh’s article, or his book The Violinist in London’s Concert Life 1750-1784: Felice Giardini and His Contemporaries (Garland, 1989) or the entry on Giardini by David J. Golby in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography); current library restrictions (due to Covid) have prevented me from seeing Cheryl Duncan’s Felice Giardini and Professional Music Culture in Mid Eighteenth-Century London (Taylor and Francis, 2019). What is important to know is that Giardini won influential aristocratic – and even Royal – patrons for himself, that he was involved in most of the major London concert series of the day (frequently working alongside J.C. Bach), that he taught noble pupils and played a key role in the operatic life of the city (as a composer, a leader and, least successfully, an impresario). He was leader of the orchestra of the Three Choirs Festival from 1770 to 1776. In short, he became a central figure in Britain’s musical life. It is no surprise that he should have a substantial entry in the most authoritative work of British biography, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Eventually, Giardini’s position and popularity came under threat as the German influence on British music increased. The most potent and immediately relevant threat came with the arrival, in 1772, of the violinist, composer and conductor Wilhelm Cramer (1746-1799); (he also has an entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). The rivalry between the two, in which Cramer prevailed, pushed Giardini from the central position he had held, particularly as a violinist. As the 1780s went on, Giardini largely withdrew from public performance, and he soon felt the need to seek success and financial salvation elsewhere. In 1784 he returned to Italy for some five years. As McVeigh puts it, “when he eventually returned to England late in 1789, he regained little of his former prestige”. Giardini left England for the last time in 1792. His exact movements thereafter are not clear, but he seems to have made his way to St. Petersburg and Moscow. He died in the latter city in June of 1796, reportedly “in great wretchedness and poverty”.

Giardini’s collection Sei Sonate di Cembalo con Violino o Flauto Traverso was first published in London in 1751. As Mario Folena’s booklet notes observe “The title page … suggests that they were originally intended for just two instruments (harpsichord and violin or flute), whereas in fact they are trio sonatas, with numbered sections devoted to the basso continuo. Bearing this in mind, we decided to double the left hand of the harpsichord with the cello and bassoon.” This decision was a sensible one which, amongst other things, generates a wider range of colours and timbres, avoiding any narrowness of effect, (though it is also important to stress that the harpsichord is far more than just a continuo instrument in these sonatas, something which is evident in the long cadenza for harpsicord in the allegro which open Sonata No 6). The engaging colours heard in ConSerto Musico’s performance of Giardini’s Sonatas also owe much to the fact that all four members of the ensemble use either instruments of the composer’s time or faithful copies thereof. The admirable Roberto Loreggian plays a modern copy (made by William Horn) of a harpsichord by Michael Mietke (c.1665-1726) of Berlin; Paola Frezzato’s bassoon (heard in Sonatas 1, 3 and 5) is a 2019 copy, by Olivier Cottet of Paris, of an instrument by the Leipzig maker Johann Heinrich Eichentopf (1678-1769), while Francesco Galligioni plays (in Sonatas 2, 4 and 6) an instrument made in Cremona at “the end of the 17th century”. The soloist on all six sonatas, flautist Mario Folena, plays a copy of an instrument by the famous instrument maker Carlo Palanca (c.1700-1783), this copy being the work of the modern German maker Martin Wenner, based in Singen. The instruments blend delightfully, without ever losing their individual qualities and characteristics.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that in addition to the six sonatas of Giardini’s Opus 3 set, this CD also includes the composer’s keyboard piece ‘Minuet con Variazione in C’. This work does not appear in the London 1751 publication of Giardini’s Sonatas, but it is included in at least one of the two Paris editions of the Sonatas which were published later in the 1750s. Its presence here, in a sensitive reading by Roberto Loreggian, is a definite bonus. Of the six sonatas themselves, all but No 6 (which is in three movements) are in two movements, Sonatas 1, 3 and 5 being made up of an Allegro and a Miuetto, while Sonata 2’s movements are marked ‘Andante assai’ and ‘Allegro’; Sonata 4’s are marked ‘Brillante’ and ‘Minietto’. The three movements of Sonata 6, much the longest of the six sonatas, are marked ‘Allegro’, ‘Grazioso’ and ‘Allegro Stacato’. Even such a bare enumeration as this makes it clear, I think, that there are continuities of form (and, indeed, of mood and style); but it also hints at the existence of a good deal of variety, this being confirmed by attentive listening.

There is a pastoral quality to a number of these sonatas – ‘pastoral’ not ‘rural’; the sense of nature which Giardini evokes is not a closely observed ‘reality’, it is not, that is to say, the natural world of, say John Clare or even Wordsworth but rather a stylized image, adhering to a set of conventions. I find that I can best approach the pastoral conventions within which Giardini wrote through consideration of the work of the French painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Many of his finest paintings (and some of those by his followers) represent aspects of aristocratic social life conducted in a setting which appears to be a garden, or a natural landscape stylized to look like a garden. But these gardens are not the formal gardens of the Eighteenth-Century so much as images of, say, landscape gardens returning to a state of nature. But the men and women who people these settings are, for the most part, unmistakably aristocratic. I have in mind paintings such as The Embarkation for Cythera, Assemblé dans une parc or The Lesson in Love by Watteau or, lesser but also interesting and apt, works such as Moulinet or Mademoiselle Camargo dancing by Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743). The pictorial world of these paintings by French near-contemporaries of Giardini seems to be evoked in, particularly, Sonata No 1 and to a lesser degree in Sonata No 2 (where, admittedly, the gigue-like closing allegro has something approaching the robustness of a real country dance, rather than an aristocratic stylization of such a dance). Sonata No 3 opens with a choir of bird song (there are many singing birds to be heard in Sonata No 2 too. As the work develops there are, in the words of Mario Folena, “numerous notes using the bass pedal [which] evoke the distinctly rustic sound of bagpipes” - an effect emphasized by the presence of the bassoon. Here Giardini seems to ironise the ‘galant’ manner with some touches of the genuinely rural.

The music of Sonata No 4 has a good deal of vivacity, though not so much as to go against the ethos of the ‘galant’. Whether in the ‘Brillante’ first movement (with its embellished scales) or the lively ‘Minuetto’ which closes the sonata, Giardini’s music seems throughout to provide many of those qualities which typify the ‘galant’ style – such as an immediacy of appeal and a quality of unforced elegance.

Nor does the prevailing melancholy of Sonata No 5 feel at odds with such an aesthetic – it is as if in certain passages – such as a descending sequence of chromatic notes played by the flute in the first movement (Allegro) Giardini acknowledges the existence of emotions beyond the natural range of the ‘galant’ idiom – as, indeed, Watteau does at times in his evident awareness of the mortality which seems to have been momentarily forgotten by some of the participants in his ‘Fêtes galantes’.

In emotional terms, Sonata No 6 is the most complex and multi-faceted of this set; in terms of emotional expressiveness, however, it nowhere exceeds the kind of aristocratic grace and restraint which characterize the ‘galant’ style or style galant as Giardini, with his French background, might well have called it. A refined politeness controls the expression of both happiness and pain, all extremes being avoided. The last movement seems uncharacteristically mischievous – being a slightly lopsided gigue. Still, for all Giardini’s restraint, I think it is fair to say that in this last sonata of Giardini’s Opus 3 there are hints, at least, of some of the later developments one associates with the empfindsamer Stil.

Giardini is very well served by ConSerto Musico. Flautist Mario Folena judges to perfection the complementary demands of grace and feeling and unites the two as well as one could wish. Harpsichordist Robert Loreggian is heard to great effect in Giardini’s ‘Minuet con Variazioni in C’, played with assured technique and an air of spontaneity. Elsewhere, in the sonatas, Loreggian’s work is exemplary; one of his earlier recording projects was a 2-CD set of the Complete Harpsichord Concertos of Baldassare Galuppi (Brilliant Classics 94161, 2011). Galuppi was one of the most influential masters of the ‘galant’ style, and given how perceptive Loreggian’s performances were on that recording, it comes as no surprise to find that he is equally sensitive when it comes to the music of Giardini, a lesser – though interesting – exponent of what is basically the same musical idiom. The two remaining members of ConSerto Musico – cellist Francesco Galligioni and bassoonist Paola Frezzato – don’t spend much time in the spotlight, as it were, but both acquit themselves very competently. All four musicians are well served by a recorded sound which is intimate, yet also has a pleasing sense of space.

A bonus comes in the form of the painting reproduced on the cover of the CD booklet – this is Felice Giardini and Children by John Francis Rigaud (1742-1810), a painter who, like Giardini, was of French descent but born in Italy (in his case in Turin). I don’t believe that he came to London before about 1770, so the Rigaud we see in his painting was at least twenty years older than the man who wrote the music. Still, it is an attractive and sympathetic work. The booklet doesn’t say where the picture is, but (unless my memory fails me – something it does quite often these days) I saw it in the flesh – as it were – in the Foundling Hospital/The Coram Foundation at Brunswick Square in London a good many years ago, and I presume it is still in that collection.

Glyn Pursglove