Felice GIARDINI (1716-1796) Six Duets for Two Violins, Op. 2 (1751)
Duet No. 1, in D Major [10:17]
Duet No. 2, in F Major [8:47]
Duet No. 3, in C Major [11:01]
Duet No. 4, in A Major [11:44]
Duet No. 5, in E Minor [9:33]
Duet No. 6, in G Major [9:31]
rec. 2018, Four Elements Studio, Bari, Italy TACTUS TC710702 [60:28]
Not for the first time (and not I hope, for the last) Tactus have shed light on a relatively forgotten corner of Italian music. One might almost be tempted to talk about a ‘corner of English music’, given that these duets were published, for Giardini, in London by John Cox. Also, one year earlier Giardini had settled in London, where he was to be an important figure in the world of music for some 35 years.
The career of Felice Giardini, born in Turin in April 1716, was typical for many of the Italian musicians who chose (felt obliged?) to seek fame and fortune further afield. The son of a French musician, as a child Giardini showed early promise on the violin. His father obtained for him a place as a chorister at Milan Cathedral. While in the city, Giardini also studied composition, harpsichord and violin. On his return to Turin, he studied the violin with no less a figure than Giovanni Battista Somis (1686-1763), a former pupil of Corelli and in turn the teacher of such as Pugnani and Leclair. While still in his early teens, Giardini began to work in opera orchestras, first in Rome and then in Naples, at the Teatro San Carlo, where his skill soon saw him promoted from the back desks of the violins to the position of deputy leader.
Deciding to pursue a career as a solo violinist, Giardini appeared in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, before making his London debut in 1750. His first public appearance was much praised. After hearing his work 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, save to say 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, that he taught noble pupils and played a key role in the operatic life of the city (as composer, leader and, least successfully, impresario). He was leader of the orchestra of Three Choirs Festival 1770-1776. 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.
Giardini’s position came under threat as the Germanic influence on British music increased. He had a dispute with Haydn when Haydn first visited London. “I don’t want to know that German dog”, he was heard to say on one occasion. The most potent threat came with the arrival, in 1772, of the German violinist, composer and conductor Wilhelm Cramer (1746-1799); he also has an entry in the British Dictionary of NationalBiography. 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”.
It is clear that in his heyday Giardini was a master violinist in the line of the great Italian virtuosi. Charles Burney, for example, wrote of Giardini’s private performance ahead of his first public concert in London that the Italian “threw into astonishment the whole company”. Burney also observed of Giardini’s first London concert itself: “the applause was so long and so hard, that I never remember to have heard such hearty and unequivocal marks of approbation at any other musical performance whatever”.
Yet, pleasant though it is, the music in these six duets does nothing to suggest that they are the work of a great virtuoso. They are played here by Alessandro Cazzato and Sharon Tomaselli. Neither violinist is subordinated to the other in these duets, as they would surely have been had the music been intended for performance by the composer. To quote Paolo Geminiani in his booklet essay for this CD (the world premiere recording of these pieces, apparently), “the parts of the first and second violin are in perfect and refined balance: time after time, each part takes the melodic interest or functions as a harmonic support without one ever predominating over the other”. This set of duets was dedicated to Prince Friedrich Heinrich Ludwig of Prussia (1726-1802), whom Giardini may have met in Germany in the late 1740s.
It seems likely, then, that these duets were written for the abler amongst Giardini’s students, either in Germany or, perhaps, in London. We know from Burney that in London Giardini “formed a morning academia, or concert, at his home, composed chiefly of his scholars, vocal and instrumental, who bore a part in the performance”. Burney adds that this happened “a few years” after Giardini’s arrival in London, so this ‘academia’ did not perhaps exist at the time these works were published in 1751. Though I am no violinist, I would venture that there is nothing in these duets to frighten the accomplished amateur or advanced student.
The clarity of construction in this music, the generally simple and attractive melodies, the overall charm and elegance, make one more than ready to apply the term ‘galant’ to these duets. All six are in three movements, and adopt, essentially, the fast-slow-fast pattern of the Italian sinfonia. Some (like Nos. 1 & 4) are marked, occasionally with additional qualifying epithets, Allegro–Adagio–Allegro. The second movement of the first duet is actually marked ‘Adagio Staccato’ and the opening allegro of Duet No. 4 carries the marking ‘Allegro Cantabile’. Elsewhere some movements are identified as dances, as in the ‘Minuetto’ which closes the second Duet, while the closing movement of Duet No. 5 is labelled ‘Allegro. Grazioso’.
Perhaps no one of these duets rises above the general level of attractive, high accomplishment which characterizes the whole set. Individual movements of particular interest include the aforementioned ‘Adagio Staccato’ (No. 1) and ‘Allegro Cantabile’ (No. 4) as well as the short but lovely Adagio of No. 2 and the slightly quirky Allegro which opens No. 6.
Unless you demand a sense of great scale and power in your music or want every musical experience to overwhelm or transport you, you will surely enjoy this intimate, intelligent, well-crafted social music. It makes, in my experience, an hour’s very pleasant listening in this well-performed and recorded disc. In an ideal world, Tactus might next take an interest in some of Giardini’s string trios…
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