Notes and Editorial Reviews
9 Keyboard Sonatas
Luca Guglielmi (fp/clvd/hpd/org)
ACCENT 24227 (76: 43)
Browning claimed he owned two volumes of Galuppi’s “toccata-pieces,” hence the title of his poem “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” but if so, he presumably would have known they were called sonatas by the composer’s time, that “sixths diminished” should read “sixths augmented,” and that Galuppi’s first name was Baldassare, not Baldassaro. Mentioning Galuppi in any case was the poet’s pretext for broadening his scope to engage in that favorite Victorian pastime, damning the frivolity of festive social behavior. For Browning was a domestic animal, and assuming the voice in the poem wasn’t an unreliable narrator, he no doubt found hollow Venice, Moscow, London, and other fashionable settings where the composer was once feted as a musical giant.
Galuppi would probably have agreed to all this with a smile, amiable sort that by all accounts he was. As a much sought-after administrator of Venice’s musical academies, the composer was famed for his patience and good humor, at a time when physical violence was accepted in many quarters as part of the educational process. As a stylist, he wrote in the popular manner of his period, and changed along with it, but developed a level of impressive contrapuntal discourse in his masses, and an increasing complexity of effect and structure in his celebrated series of comic operas. By all accounts, too, Galuppi was extremely hard-working, capable of keeping Venice’s estimable Ospedali dei Mendicante supplied with new religious music in his role as
maestro di coro
after he became the main composer at London’s Haymarket Theater in 1741, replacing Handel. He did as much again in 1766, when the Venetian senate approved a three-year trip to Russia, though their conditions were less onerous: As long as Galuppi supplied a new Mass in his role as maestro to the Basilica di San Marco for each Christmas eve, he was free to serve Tsarina Catherine II as
maestro di capella
. Browning wasn’t off the mark in this respect. Galuppi was a great favorite of the wealthy, powerful European elites. That of course overlooks the fact that most composers of his day sought similar acclaim from these groups, so perhaps we can forgive him, and in doing so, the whole, wonderfully mad world in general, after all.
Galuppi wrote roughly 130 keyboard sonatas, most but not all in two movements. They illustrate well the definition of good music reported by that indefatigable music historian and observer Charles Burney: charm, clarity, and good harmony. Of clarity they have plenty, thanks to the division of their treble and bass parts, and charm is provided by the fresh inspiration of the simple but varied themes. Galuppi could have had one of two meanings in mind for good harmony: well-schooled harmony, and harmony that was appropriate in context. Or possibly both, as his own works demonstrate his belief that it wasn’t enough to be learned; you had to pay attention to what people wanted to hear, too. So there are none of the complexities of the character pieces by Couperin or Rameau in these sonatas, but instead a kind of narrowed Scarlatti, the folk element almost entirely missing, the performing technique simplified, and Italian lyricism predominant. Like Scarlatti, as well, is Galuppi’s recourse to simpler, catchy motto phrases, presented in one section, then altered in a second.
The liner notes compare the uncomplicated idiom of Galuppi to Alberti, but that’s a bit of a red herring. The sonatas of Alberti are so much background texture, as rote and uninteresting as the bass figure that became associated with his name. Many of Galuppi’s sonata movements by contrast shift character, textures, and bass structure every few bars. It is as though he deliberately attempted to avoid the numbingly repetitive bass of Alberti, and others like him. The single-movement E-Minor Sonata on this album is typical of this approach, and if the seams in the shifting patterns in the first section show very clearly, like a crazy quilt, the second section includes ingenious transformations on previous material, as well as a wild, toccata-like episode possibly pointing to an improvisational origin.
Other sonatas recorded here pursue different compositional strategies. The first movement of the Sonata in A Minor, a
, is so simple as to suggest a sketch for an operatic serenade. On the other hand, the first movement of the D-Major Sonata revives the double-dotted introduction of the French overture, under a melodic line that grows effusively ornamental and Italianate. The second movement is a gigue in all but name, playing skillfully on sudden shifts of rhythm and harmony to good effect. It’s perhaps implying too much to hear an attempt at a binding relationship between the double-dotted rhythm of the
finale, lending it a delightfully smug character, and the work’s first movement, but the well-read and -traveled Galuppi may have read the scores and seen performances of the Mannheim symphonists’ music in the 1740s and 1750s. This piece was published in 1759.
Burney again makes the case for Galuppi’s possession and use of a clavichord, while fortepianos and even Italian organs often performed the same repertoire as harpsichords. As there is no designation for a specific instrument to much of this music (no doubt in part to foster sales), Guglielmi employs five different models, all reconstructions. There’s a bright double-manual harpsichord after a 1710 Mietke, a sweeter single-manual one in imitation of a 1698 Cristofori, a delicate fortepiano after a 1726 Cristofori, an imitation 1782 Schiedmayer clavichord with a rather heavy action, and an imitation 1752 Concone organ. Surely the first movement of the Sonata in A? was written not merely for an organ, but just such an intimate instrument as the one Guglielmi uses? Perhaps not, but the inevitability it suggests says much for the performer’s discriminating ear, and that goes for the other instrumental choices, as well.
Guglielmi himself plays throughout with a pronounced flair for these bagatelles. He paces expertly, without any evidence of the excessive speed some keyboard performers have displayed in the rhythmically vivacious music of this period. (Not that Guglielmi lacks for technique, as the athletic E-Minor Sonata probably demonstrates best, though it’s more a matter of limpid, perfectly equal runs in both hands than massive chords and tricky figurations.) His sense of phrasing, and sparing use of metrical freedom, do much to bring out the singing nature of Galuppi’s inspirations. With excellent engineering, this is a fine way to celebrate the art of the sunnily unassuming miniature.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal