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CD Review

Attilio Ariosti

The Stockholm Sonatas III

  • Viola d'amore Sonata #15 in F minor
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #16 in G Major
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #17 in B Flat Major
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #18 in D minor
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #19 in A minor
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #20 in G minor
  • Viola d'amore Sonata #21 in A minor
  • Aria "Pur alfin gentil viola" *
Thomas Georgi, viola d'amore
Lucas Harris, archlute & Baroque guitar
Mime Yamahiro Brinkman, cello
* Emma Kirkby, soprano

Attilio Ariosti was born in Bologna in 1666. Scarcely remembered today (perhaps only as the accomplished player of the viola d'amore that he certainly was), the Italian was nevertheless well known in his lifetime – as a singer, organist, and harpsichord, violin and cello virtuoso. Not to mention his plays and operas. A cleric (and monk for a short time), Ariosti also lived and worked in Venice, Paris, Berlin and London, where he died in 1729.

It's known that Ariosti's favorite instrument was indeed the viola d'amore; we know of a total of 21 solo sonatas of his for it. They were collected during the 1710's by a Swedish music student, Johan Helmich Roman, and are housed in the Statens Musikbibliotek in Stockholm. Hence their most usual name: The Stockholm Sonatas. On BIS, violist d'amore Thomas Georgi has joined Lucas Harris (archlute and Baroque guitar) and Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann (cello) with Emma Kirby (soprano) in Pur alfin gentil viola on this CD to record all these sonatas. Volume III is representative of the music making, and is typically appealing: Ariosti's music is unusual in the composer's use of out-of-the-way harmonies, his pauses and a fruity yet dry sense of humor. In this recording Georgi plays a six gut-stringed viola d'amore (with six wire sympathetic strings) by Thomas Eberle (Naples, 1783); the archlute is a 14-course copy after Tieffenbruckner by Lars Jönsson (1987), the Baroque guitar is a 5-course after Tessler (Ancona, 1620) by Ivo Magherini (2001); the cello is an instrument from mid-C18th Milan.

There are other reasons (fashion? ignorance?) why these, Ariosti's perhaps most central works (Georgi's, BIS recordings are the only complete ones in the catalog), aren't often heard. The viola d'amore is a rarity of an instrument; few (other) composers wrote extensively for it – Bach, Biber, Vivaldi, Haydn, Telemann, so there's a slimmer playing tradition; it's not known how Ariosti had it tuned in this case; in particular, interpreting his scordatura writing involves some guesswork. In the second volume of the BIS series Giergi supposed that Ariosti used his viola d'amore as an alto instrument. Here (Volume III) it's been strung for the soprano range – the top note is d'. Even here a compromise was struck: during the four day recording sessions (at Länna Church, in Sweden) seven different tunings were required for the eight pieces. But the "shifting", the "suspended" or fluid, the even "listless" status of the instrument is further confirmed in that Ariosti chose different tunings for works in the same key. What Georgi has done on this recording is emphasized more than the composer's palpable love of experiment; also his delight in sound itself, non-conformity and originality – all without a hint of waywardness or mere gesture. The interpretations and musicality here are as sound and considered as they ought to be. There's meaning and depth in every bar. But they're fully and carefully painted meaning and depth.

It would be wrong, though, to approach these seven lovely sonatas (which may well be the latest of the 21 total already referred to: they're more concise, shorter and less expansive, less repetitive) and the aria, Pur alfin gentil viola as though they were curiosities, oddities or in other way exceptions. To be sure, an awareness of the particular position in Ariosti's heart which the viola d'amore held is useful: there's so much figurative writing, more than a nod to the imagery and language of love. But these qualities are also communicated with warmth, and with a wry detachment from such torments as well as gladnesses.

It's hard to compare Ariosti's pace, harmonies and textures with any kind of more familiar style: there are touches of Vivaldi's Venetian sparkle (the G minor (number 20) rondeaux [tr.23], for example). Of Telemann's cerebral interplay between instruments (the A minor (number 19) allegro [tr.17]). Even of Handel, or Bach's, self-confidence; and Couperin's melancholy. But then some of the dance movements (the A minor (number 21) courente [tr.26]) have you thinking of insistent Spanish rhythms. It is to these musicians' great credit – particularly Georgi's leading role – that none of this is overdone. These are not vignettes, still less showcase pieces. They're always played with a respect; at times, a reserve, almost: the A minor (number 21) adagio [tr.27], for instance, seems to be waiting for us to urge it along, once we've tasted and digested all its rich juices. This is neither faltering, not undue tentativeness. Just an immense sensitivity to the weave of the sound made by the viola d'amore in concert with the other stringed and plucked instruments. Since this is a particularly happy (because at once soft and rich) combination of sounds, these musicians make such a point of savoring it.

The acoustic is generous and immediate – with just the right atmosphere. Specifically, it supports the intimate and almost cozy feeling of the string playing. That allows every note to be clearly heard; yet without over-exposure. There is an informative essay in the booklet. If you already have either (or both: they're good enough) of the other two CDs from BIS (1535, 1555) in this series, you'll want this last one. If you like the idea of gentle, expressive High Baroque chamber music from an out-of-the-way source, yet one which has all the urbanity and beauty of Ariosti's more celebrated contemporaries, this is a CD, indeed a series, that can be warmly recommended. Unpretentious, yet full of feeling and depth, the self-contained yet thoughtful music is played with style and generosity by these three instrumentalists. And of course Emma Kirkby's forward and colorful singing with her touch of lightness and self-aware intensity caps the recital of wonderfully.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey