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Giovanni PICCHI (1572 - 1643) Canzoni da sonar con ogni sorte d'istromenti
Concerto Scirocco/Giulia Genini
rec. 2018/19, Chiesa di Santa Maria, Carona, Switzerland; Sala della Carità, Padua, Italy ARCANA A476 [71:29]
Giovanni Picchi is one of many composers active around 1600 who has been overshadowed by more famous contemporaries. He has become mainly known for his keyboard music, and in particular one piece, a toccata included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The first time I heard of him, was when Ton Koopman included one of his keyboard works into his debut recording. He later devoted an entire disc to Picchi. His oeuvre is rather small: in addition to a collection of keyboard works, he published a set of nineteen canzonas, which is the subject of the present disc. In addition, a sacred concerto for solo voice was included in the collection Ghirlanda Sacra of 1625.
Picchi's career seems to be a story of hit and (mostly) miss. He was born into a family which included several musicians, and was likely a pupil of Giovanni Croce, who from 1603 until his death in 1609 was maestro di cappella at St Mark's in Venice. From that one may conclude that he received an excellent musical education. He also knew many people from the higher echelons of society, which should have been helpful in assuring a musical position of some importance. In the mid-1590s he became organist at the Basilica dei Frari; he held this position until his death. However, attempts to add posts in other churches failed. In 1606 he applied for the post of organist at the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, but it was given to a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli. In 1612 he attempted to succeed the latter as organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, but lost to Giovanni Battista Grillo. "Picchi contested the result on the basis of its lack of transparency and appealed to the Council of Ten. The appeal was granted and the Scuola was forced to announce a new contest, to which Picchi did not, however, apply. The incident did not end here. On the 11th March 1614, following an attempt to be elected to the post by corrupting an official of the Scuola, Picchi was banished from all future jobs at the confraternity: but this sentence was overturned on the 21st March, on the grounds that it was contrary to the school's statutes." (booklet) In 1623, Grillo died, and Picchi was given his job. Two further applications failed: in 1623 he tried to be appointed first organist, and in 1624 to become second organist at St Mark's.
In 1619 Picchi published his Intavolatura di balli d'arpicordo, a collection of keyboard music entirely based on then common dances. This kind of music seems to have been his speciality, as in 1600 his likeness appeared at the frontispiece of an important dance treatise. The keyboard dances were reprinted in 1621, but three further books of dances which Picchi promised to publish "when I see that this first book proves pleasing to the public", have never appeared (assuming that they have not been lost). Howard Ferguson, in his article on Picchi in New Grove, dryly adds: "[The] public's response can only be guessed." He also calls Picchi a 'minor composer'. In general, I don't like this kind of assessments, which are often based on a lack of knowledge of a composer's output and a neglect of his standing in his time. It seems that Picchi was well respected and appreciated by his contemporaries. On the other hand, one may wonder why he did not play a more important role in music life in his time. One has to take into account that every musician had to deal with stiff competition. In fact, many composers of the time have escaped our attention as they were lost in the crowd.
The Canzoni da sonar were published in 1625 in Venice. It is a collection of nineteen canzonas for two to eight instruments and basso continuo. The eight-part canzonas are for two groups, and they belong to the most conservative pieces. Such works were written in the 16th century, mainly for liturgical use. In these canzonas the required instruments are not specified. The previous canzonas are more up-to-date with time, as they explore the specific features of the then most revered instruments: the violin, the cornett, the sackbut and the bassoon. In every canzona the instrumentation is specified, but the performers have rightly taken some freedom. The scoring mentioned in the titles is probably more a suggestion than a strict prescription. The instrumentation is also used to emphasize contrasts within a piece, for instance by juxtaposing high and low instruments or wind and strings. The contrapuntal character of these canzonas remind us of Picchi's training by Croce, and some rhythms betray Picchi's thorough experience in the field of dance music.
I don't know if any of Picchi's canzonas have been recorded before, but this is certainly the first time the entire collection is available on disc. It completes our knowledge of Picchi and shows that he was more than just a composer of keyboard music (which is not often performed as well). Due to this recording, Picchi's canzonas may well appear in concert programmes and on disc. Concerto Scirocco delivers pretty much ideal performances. The variety in the line-up works very well, and there is a fine balance between the different groups of instruments. Thanks to the effective articulation, the rhythmic pulse comes off to full extent. Concerto Scirocco is a group of players that has showed its skills before, for instance in a programme of music by Giovanni Croce and his contemporaries (review). I hope they will continue to explore little-known repertoire, which is often unjustly neglected, as is the case with these pieces by Picchi.