Celebrated for its elegant and refined music-making, Similia has received many prizes and accolades, including the coveted Prix Félix for Instrumental Album of the Year awarded by ADISQ (Quebec Recording [...]
They spoke about it
La dolce vita: the sweet life. Contrary to expectations, perhaps, the title of this recording does not refer to the famous 1960 Fellini film about the licentious nights of a cultivated and refined playboy who cannot seem to overcome his boredom. No, this “sweet life” goes back 150 years earlier, when in both Italy and the rest of Europe this emerging but not yet cynical class of bourgeoisie was first discovering how to take one’s time and enjoy oneself. And to facilitate this, a new kind of establishment began to appear: the café.
These well-to-do people would come daily to see friends or meet new ones, and—after reading the newspapers, which café owners would affix to long slats of wood to make them easier to handle—to put the world to rights. Or they might simply come to loiter, take it easy, and absently watch the world go by. At a time when neither the radio nor the gramophone had yet been invented, it was not uncommon for this serene atmosphere to be rounded out with the delicate sound of a guitar, occasionally accompanied by a flute or violin. This was how, starting in the 1800s, the café contributed to the emergence of a wonderful repertoire of works for flute or violin and guitar.
It wasn’t long before a number of instrumental virtuosi, mainly Italians, gave these duets legitimacy by introducing them to the concert hall. Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) was one of the first great guitar celebrities. Since Italy already had many fine guitarists and little interest for music outside of opera, he moved to Vienna in 1806, a café paradise second only to Italy. His exceptional playing aroused in the Viennese a craze for the guitar, which had previously been considered a marginal instrument, fit indeed only for the café. By 1808, when he premiered his first guitar concerto, Giuliani had won over all the skeptics. The Empress Marie Louise appointed him a “virtuoso onorario di camera” of her court, and as such he frequently performed in chamber music concerts with some of the best musicians of the age, including the violinist Louis Spohr. It was thus probably for himself and Spohr that Guiliani composed most of his works for violin and guitar, though with the intention that the violin could be replaced with a flute if need be, as is indicated on most of the works’ title pages. Of Giuliani’s fifteen “grand duets” for violin/flute and guitar, Opus 85 is the most well-known since it was republished in the 1920s. Composed in 1817, the piece is, like most of his other grand duets, a regular four-movement sonata in the form established by the Classical Viennese composers. The first movement is a standard sonata form in which flute and guitar expose in turn the first and second themes. The second movement, “Andante molto sostenuto,” reveals Giuliani’s pleasant sense of cantabile, while the third is a lively and unique “Scherzo”—unique in the sense that he otherwise always used a minuet for the third movement. The finale, “Allegretto espressivo,” develops the rondo in an original manner, in which, after one stormy episode, the work comes to a peaceful close.
Of the four composers on this recording, Niccòlo Paganini (1782–1840) is certainly the most wll-known. This violinist of transcendent virtuosity contributed to huge advances in violin technique in works that are today mainstays of the violin repertoire. Adulated throughout Europe, his eccentricity both on stage and off generated scandalous rumours of such persistence that when he died, the Church refused him a religious funeral. That said, Paganini was also an excellent guitarist and, in the shadow of his violin oeuvre, he wrote over one hundred works for guitar, and over 75 sonatas for guitar and violin. The work performed here by Simila, in a version for flute and guitar, is part of the collection entitled “Centone di sonate,” centone meaning something like “pastiche,” “potpourri,” or “mixture,” almost in the sense of “quilt.” Probably begun after 1828, the year his career took off in Europe, this collection of 18 sonatas remained in manuscript form for many years and was not published until 1955.
Little is known of Filippo Gragnani (1767–18??). Nothing about him appears in modern musical sources. However, an old dictionary of French music provides the following outline: “Gragnani (Philippe), distinguished guitarist of his day and composer, born in Livourne [Leghorn, or Livorno, Italy] in 1767. After learning counterpoint under Luchesi, he studied the best theoretical and practical works, to complete his education as a composer of church music; but chance having put the guitar in his hands, he became attached to this instrument and widened its resources through the music he wrote. Gragnani was still alive in 1812, and was then only forty-five years old. I do not know what has become of him since.” The author goes on to list the works of Gragnani that he knows. In addition to works for solo guitar, there is chamber music for various combinations of instruments, some of them unusual, such as the Quartet for two guitars, violin and clarinet, and a Sextet for flute, clarinet, violin, two guitars and cello. Unlike Giuliani’s grand duet, the sonata by Gragnani on this recording follows the Italian form of three contrasting movements, fast-slow-fast, whose origins date back to the Baroque period. It is no less charming, however.
Living to the venerable age of 87, Luigi Rinal do Legnani (1790–1877) led a quadruple career of opera singer, violinist, guitarist and guitar maker. However it was as a guitarist that he made his greatest mark. In 1819, the year Giuliani left Vienna for the court of Naples, Legnani moved to the Austrian capital and literally took his place. From there, he travelled throughout Europe for over 30 years before retiring in 1850 in Ravenna to concentrate on instrument making, bringing several important innovations to the guitar. A prolific composer, Legnani’s oeuvre contains over 250 opuses, and the great publishing houses in Vienna, Paris, Milan and London all vied to publish them. Among other works, he composed pieces specifically for flute and guitar, including the Gran duetto Op. 87. While Legnani employed the Viennese four-movement sonata of his predecessor Giuliani, the recitativo that opens the third movement also betrays the influence of Beethoven, who was one of the first to use this early Baroque vocal form in a purely instrumental context.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen