Ariosti 6 Lessons Brilliant 95620

Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729)
6 Lessons for viola d’amore & continuo
Lesson I in E flat
Lesson II in A
Lesson III in E minor
Lesson IV in F
Lesson V in E minor
Lesson VI in D
Pur alfin gentil viola, cantata for solo voice and viola d’amore
Mauro Righini (viola d’amore)
Elena Bertuzzi (soprano)
Ugo Nastrucci (theorbo), Danilo Costantini (harpsichord, organ)
rec. 2017, BartokStudio, Bernareggio (MB), Italy

The viola d’amore is one of the instruments that flourished only a relatively short period in history. In this case it was used from the end of the 17th century to the end of the next, and its popularity was largely confined to the German-speaking world (Germany, Austria, Bohemia) and Italy. This is how New Grove sums up its features: “Normally the viola d’amore is about the size of a viola but with the physical characteristics of a viol: flat back, wide ribs flush with the top and back, sloping shoulders and a carved head at the top of the pegbox. The soundholes are commonly in the shape of a ‘flaming sword’ and there is usually an additional rosette. The instrument is held under the chin and played like a violin; it is unfretted. Its tone, though not as brilliant or powerful as that of the violin or viola, is singularly sweet. Usually there are 14 strings: seven playing strings, which cross the top of the bridge, and seven sympathetic (resonating) strings, which run through the bridge and under the fingerboard into separate pegs in the pegbox. Various instruments, however, may have various combinations of playing and sympathetic strings.”

Several composers have mentioned the instrument, such as Johann Mattheson and Leopold Mozart. They describe it as sweet and languishing, and Johann Mattheson regretted that it wasn’t more often used. He himself wrote parts for the viola d’amore in two of his operas, and other composers also used it in dramatic works, both sacred and secular, such as Antonio Vivaldi in his oratorio Juditha triumphans. One of the best-known composers for the viola d’amore was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Johann Sebastian Bach used it in several of his cantatas and in the St John Passion. It also appeared in Passions by Telemann and Stölzel. In the 19th century it was seldom used. The 20th century has seen a kind of revival, but it has never risen to the status of being part of the symphony orchestra. Today it is mostly used in the performances of early music, but the number of recordings with music for the viola d’amore is limited.

A composer who substantially contributed to the viola d’amore repertoire was Attilio Ariosti. He was born in Bologna, and ordained as a priest. His first compositions were oratorios, but after composing his first opera in 1697 he concentrated on writing music for the theatre. A year before he had entered the service of the Duke of Mantua, who sent him to Berlin to the court of Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg. There he was appointed maître de musique and became Sophie Charlotte’s favourite musician. Later on he worked at the imperial court in Vienna, where he was held in high esteem by Joseph I. For him he worked as a diplomat in Italy, and after Joseph’s death entered the service of the Duke of Anjou, the future French king Louis XV. As a result of his many activities as a diplomat, but also as a music teacher and an interpreter – he was a singer and played the keyboard, the cello and the viola d’amore – his output is rather limited in comparison to that of some of his more famous contemporaries.

Ariosti spent the last stage of his life in England, where he arrived in July 1716. He played in public on the viola d’amore, and composed some operas. His first opera in England was Tito Manlio, performed in 1717. It made such an impression that the Royal Academy of Music commissioned another opera from him. From 1722 to 1728 he was one of the composers employed by the Royal Academy, alongside Handel and Bononcini. He died in London in 1729.

In 1724 Ariosti published a number of sonatas for viola d’amore in London, under the title Cantatas and a Collection of Lessons for the Viol d’amour. It is notable that Ariosti immediately adapted them for the violin. He reckoned – and rightly so – that the viola d’amore wasn’t much played in England, and certainly not by amateurs, the kind of people his collection was aiming at. The fact that today they can be played as they were originally conceived is due to the fact that these sonatas were copied by the Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman. This collection of copies is entitled Recueil de Pièces pour la Viol d’Amour. The Lessons appear in both sources which means that they are available in real and in scordatura notation. The fact that the first six were entitled Lessons does not have any special meaning. This was a common term in England for pieces in several movements, often in form identical with sonatas. In total there are 21 lessons or sonatas for viola d’amore and basso continuo, consisting of three or four movements; they are the largest single set of works for this instrument of the baroque period. The main difference between the printed lessons and the sonatas that have been preserved in manuscript, is that the former have relatively few multiple stops, which can be explained from the fact that they were intended for amateurs.

From 2006 to 2008 BIS released three discs with the complete lessons and sonatas by Ariosti, performed by Thomas Georgi. Both performances are very good. The differences are in the tempi and the sound of the viola d’amore. Whether the latter is due to different instruments is for me hard to decide. One factor is a difference in recording: Georgi made his recordings in a church, which is basically not such a great idea. The Brilliant Classics recording took place in a studio, and the miking was closer. This recording has more intimacy and directness, which I appreciate. Overall, Georgi creates stronger contrasts in tempo: the slower movements are a little slower and the fast movements somewhat faster than in Mauro Righini’s performance. It seems to me that those who are not interested in Ariosti’s complete oeuvre for the viola d’amore should go for the Brilliant Classics recording, which is musically satisfying and a perfect way to become acquainted with the viola d’amore and Ariosti’s sonatas. As a bonus, Elena Bertuzzi delivers a fine and stylish performance of a cantata with viola d’amore, Pur alfin gentil viola.

Johan van Veen

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