Araja Pellegrini Harpsichord Works Brilliant Classics

Francesco Araja (1709-1770)
8 Capricci
Ferdinando Pellegrini (c.1715-c.1766)
6 Harpsichord Sonatas, Op.2 (1754)
Enrico Bissolo (harpsichord)
rec. 2020, San Giorgio di Valpolicella, Italy.
Brilliant Classics 96482 [67]

Not for the first time the people at Brilliant Classics offer us keyboard music by little-known composers; and – also not for the first time – the offer deserves to be gratefully accepted.

Both of these composers seem to have been born in Naples. In the case of Araja (whose full name was Francesco Domenico), we have a precise date of birth, June 25, 1709. He probably received his early musical training from his father Angelo and he is believed then to have studied with Leonardo Leo and Leonardo Vinci in Naples. It is known that when only 14 he directed a performance of his own music in the church of S. Maria la Nova in Naples. In 1729 his comic opera Lo matremmonejo pe’ venetta (in Neapolitan dialect) was successfully performed.  Around this time, or soon after, he was in Rome; subsequent operas by him were performed in cities such as Florence, Rome and Milan, including a number of opere serie, such as Berenice (Florence, 1730), Il Cleomene (Rome, 1731) and La forza dell’amore e dell’odio (Milan, 1734). It was presumably the favourable attention attracted by these works which led to his appointment, in 1735, as court composer to Empress Anna of Russia in St. Petersburg. He worked in Russia until Anna’s death in 1740, when he returned briefly to Italy, but made his way back to Russia in the following year to take up a similar position under Empress Elizabeth. He seems to have returned again to Italy in 1759 but was back in Russia for the coronation of Peter III in 1762 (for which he wrote some music). When Peter was overthrown by his wife Catherine in the same year and died in doubtful circumstances, Araja left Russia for the last time, settling in Bologna, where he is thought to have died. 

By no means all of Araja’s substantial oeuvre survives but it is clear that much the greater part of it was for the operatic stage, along with a handful of oratorios and cantatas. Indeed, I haven’t been able to find references to any other purely instrumental works by him. It is thus safe to say that this set of 8 capricci (the longest lasting just under five minutes in Enrico Bissolo’s performance, the shortest only a little over two minutes) were not central to his career as a composer. Perhaps they were musical jeux d’esprits written for his own use when requested to give a courtly recital? If so, he must have been a competent harpsichordist, since these are technically demanding pieces, at times almost ostentatiously virtuosic. With some wide leaps and passages of cross-handed playing, these caprices suggest that Araja may have been familiar with some of the sonatas of his more famous Neapolitan predecessor, Domenico Scarlatti.

Araja certainly takes full advantage of the structural freedom implicit in the term capricci; listening to these short pieces it is often impossible to guess how they might develop, where they might go next. It seems that the Capricci survive in a single manuscript in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (D-B Mus. Ms 761). The first of the set, in F major marked presto, is a vivacious piece, which characteristically involves several scampering traversals of the keyboard. The second capriccio, in A major, is the odd one out amongst these eight pieces, in that it is the only one to be made up of two distinct sections, with different tempo markings – ‘Largo’ and ‘Allegro Spiritoso’. As a technical musical term ‘spiritoso’ is usually understood to mean “spirited, i.e. at a fast tempo” (Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms), while in general Italian usage its primary meaning is “witty” (Collins Italian Dictionary). Araja’s writing in this second capriccio seems to enact both meanings simultaneously and Enrico Bissolo’s playing does full justice to both.

Most of the eight capricci are fast, though Nos. 5 (D major, Larghetto) and 7 (C major, Andante Spiritoso) offer some more thoughtful respite from the fast tempi which otherwise prevail. The eight pieces are not best listened to as a sequence – better to sample, to pick and choose. These demanding pieces often have an air of the improvisational about them. Fortunately, Enrico Bissolo’s instrument, a 1984 copy by Keith Hill of Michigan, of an original by Petrus Bull (Antwerp, 1769) has the kind of sharp attack and quick decay which one more often associates with Italian-made harpsichords, qualities essential to the successful performance of music such as this.

Where Pellegrini is concerned biographical information is somewhat scarcer than it is for Ajara. There seems to be a general agreement that he was born in or near Naples around 1715, but it isn’t clear what real evidence there is for this assumption. He is known to have been in Rome in 1743, in which year his name appears in the register of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. That he was active as a composer in Lyon in the 1750s is evidenced in Michel Brenet’s ‘La librairie musicale en France de 1653 à 1790, d’après les Registres de privilèges’ (Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, 1907, pp.401-66). Early in the 1760s he was in Paris, in the service of Alexandre le Riche de la Pouplinière; while in Paris he seems to have given music lessons to the novelist Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité, Madam de Genlis (1746-1830). He left the French capital in 1762, probably for London. Before his death around 1766, which may have occurred either in London or Paris, several collections were published under his name in London, including Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord with an Accompaniment for a Violin, Op.4 [1763], Four Grand Concertos or Symphonies for the Harpsichord or Organ…[1763] and Six Concertos for the Harpsichord or Organ …., Op.6 [1766]. Given the relative paucity of secure biographical information and the suspicion that pages from sonatas by Baldassare Galuppi, Giovanni Benedetto Platti and Ferdinand Rutini were published under Pellegrini’s name during his years in London (a suspicion presented in Fausto Torrefranca’s book Le origini italiane del romanticismo musicale i primitivi della sonata moderna (Turin, 1930), it is not perhaps surprising that Leon Plantinga should describe Pellegrini as a “shadowy Neapolitan cembalist, organist and plagiarist” (‘Clementi, Virtuosity, and the ‘German Manner’’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 25;3, 1972, pp.303-330. The quoted words occur on p. 311.) These suspected ‘borrowings’ are perhaps present in the sonatas recorded here,  the Sei Sonate per Cembalo … Opera Seconda [1765] published in London “for J[ohn] Walsh”, which correspond to Pellegrini’s 6 Sonates, published in Paris in 1754. If so, I must confess that I didn’t detect any of these supposedly plagiarised passages.

Pellegrini is unmistakeably a composer whose writing for the harpsichord contains both echoes of baroque practices and anticipations of the classical style of the future. In his booklet notes Enrico Bissolo writes of these sonatas that “the style is fully gallant: this is demonstrated by a certain elegance in phrasing and melodic invention, together with a certain repetitiveness in the accompaniment formulas”. Five of the six sonatas are in two movements – ‘Andantino’ and ‘Minuetto’; the exception, No. 3 is in three movements (Andantino-Allegro-Menuet). There is none of the almost manic energy or wildness of form heard in Araja’s Capricci; here all is considered and restrained, the textures are simpler and the formal structures are clearly delineated. As a result, this music is more readily ‘accessible’, undemandingly pleasant to listen to. In his entry on ‘galant’ in the New Grove (1980) the late Daniel Heartz quotes Voltaire as writing that “[b]eing galant, in general, means seeking to please”. In these sonatas, Pellegrini was very much a composer who sought ‘to please’, rather than to challenge. 

I am happy to endorse Enrico Bissolo’s characterisation of these sonatas by Pellegrini, quoted in the previous paragraph and to add that his performances of the sonatas are cogent and amiable. I cannot pretend that I am especially excited by these sonatas, but time spent listening to them is not wasted. Without reopening the question of Pellegrini’s ‘plagiarism’, it is clear that Galuppi’s keyboard writing was a point of reference for Pellegrini; some of Galuppi’s sonatas can conveniently be heard on another disc from Brilliant Classics, the  6 Harpsichord Sonatas, Op.1, played by Andrea Chezi (see review).

Although Francesco Araya’s music occupies less of this disc than that of Ferdinando Pellegrini does, I feel sure that it is his Capricci that will most often be my reason for taking the disc off my shelves in the future.

Glyn Pursglove

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