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Johann /Giovanni (H.A.) HOFFMAN (1770-1842)
Divertimento a Mandolino, Violono e Basso (No.1) [6:23]
Divertimento a Mandolino, Violono e Basso (No.2) [10:56]
Giovanni Francesco GIULIANI (1760-1818)
Quartetto per Mandolino, Violino e Cello o Viola e Liuto (No.1) [17:00]
Quartetto per Mandolino, Violino e Cello o Viola e Liuto (No.3) [15:38]
Quartetto per Mandolino, Violino e Cello o Viola e Liuto No.5) [16:45]
Ensemble Baschenis: Ruggero Fededegni (violin), Marco Luca Capucci (mandolin), Alessandra Milesi (cello), Giorgio Ferraris (theorbo)
rec. Spring 2007, Bartok Studio, Bernareggio, Milan
CONCERTO CD 2036 [66:41]

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On my wanderings around art galleries I have often noticed – and been intrigued by – the paintings of Evaristo Baschenis (1617-77). Based for most of his life in his birthplace in Bergamo, his most fascinating paintings are still life compositions made up of musical instruments (sometimes with a few non-musical additions). There are fine paintings of this kind in, for example, Bergamo itself, Turin, the Accademia in Venice, and a particularly fine Still Life with Musical Instruments has found its way to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In this last, various musical instruments lie on a large table, seemingly abandoned casually after music making. But the casual air is deceptive; the more one looks at the painting the more intricate the geometries of the arrangement reveal themselves to be. A score hangs out from a drawer at the left  - presumably the music recently played: two apples, past their best, reinforce the idea that the music has happened and is no more. The visual geometries of the instruments seem to offer a kind of after echo, transferred to the eyes rather than the ears, of the no longer audible music. Bass viol, mandolin, cittern, two guitars, a lute and a flute are amongst the instruments visible. The paintings of Baschenis have always seemed to me to evoke that tantalising sense of having just missed some fine music, of having, frustratingly, not been party to some intimate chamber music, which one is now left to try to imagine. What a good name, then, for a chamber group – Ensemble Baschenis! Read the (excellent) booklet notes and one discovers that their author (and the theorbist of the group), Giorgio Ferraris, has “under the auspices of the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo … made a study of the musicological and organological aspects of the works” of the painter. Though it dates from some time after his death, one suspects that Evaristo Baschenis would have loved the music here recorded in his name, as it were.

Little is know of Giovanni (or Johann) Hoffman, though he seems to have been a well regarded performer on the mandolin. These compositions date, Ferraris suggests, rather oddly, from the 1770s or 1780s, which doesn’t harmonise with a birth date of 1770.  The music itself is delightful. For some strange synaesthetic reason it makes me think of sitting and eating good Italian ice cream after a long spell in the sun. While that particular association is, no doubt, absurdly subjective, the music is certainly refreshing in its tang and colour, its melodic fluency and its rhythmic sharpness. It gets a loving performance full of unexaggerated joie-de-vivre. All this is enhanced by a crystal clear recorded sound.

Giuliani’s work has a slightly lower centre of gravity, with some of Hoffman’s sprightliness replaced by a greater reflectiveness. But he shares Hoffman’s essential grace and unassuming ease of creativity. He also shares Hoffman’s fascination with the subtle shifts of tone colour possible with this combination of instruments, which draws, in part, on the connections between mandolin and violin in the musical thought and practice of the Eighteenth Century. As Ferrarri’s notes point out, performers often doubled on the two instruments; he calls them ‘accomplices and rivals’. Mandolins from Brescia and Naples were tuned identically to the violin.

In the work of both composers – played with such sensitive and intelligent understanding of the idiom by the Ensemble Baschenis – the advancing into and retreating from prominence of each solo instrument in turn, along with the beautifully judged continuo work, produces patterns of structure and texture which the painter who gives his name to the group would surely have admired and, as it were, recognised as cognate with his own art.

While this may not be music of great profundity, and isn’t remotely grand in scale, it is exquisitely made and played - without the slightest hint of mere preciousness. It rinses the senses into freshness, engages the mind and makes the foot tap. This time – in contrast to the paintings of Baschenis – we haven’t missed the music! There’s much unpretentious pleasure to be had here.
 

Glyn Pursglove

 


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