Musica dei Donum: Lelio COLISTA, Alessandro STRADELLA, Carlo Ambrogio LONATI: Sinfonias

It makes much sense to bring together these three recordings into one review, and the reason is not that the performers in all of them are the same. Colista, Stradella and Lonati were partly contemporaries – although the latter two are of a younger generation than Colista – and spent some stages of their careers in Rome. In 1675 all of them were involved in performances of a series of oratorios, which took place as part of the Holy Year.
The least-known of them is Colista; his name may ring a bell with some music lovers, as Henry Purcell, for instance, referred to him as the “famous Lelio Calista” in the 12th edition of John Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1694), which he revised. However, his music is hardly known and badly represented on disc.
Colista was born in Rome and was educated at the lute and the guitar. The fact that his father was in the service of the Vatican and then of the university may have helped him to make a career early on. He became associated with the Chigi papacy, and served at the Cappella Sistina and some of the main churches in Rome. As a player he often performed in private gatherings of the aristocracy. In his capacity as deputy chamberlain to Cardinal Flavio Chigi, nephew of Pope Alexander VII, he was part of a diplomatic mission to France in 1664, together with the keyboard player Bernardo Pasquini. At this occasion he played for Louis XIV, who was very impressed. He was also sought after as a teacher; his most famous pupil was the Spanish guitar player Gaspar Sanz. His success as a player, a teacher and a composer brought him fame and prosperity, which allowed him to live in the most fashionable part of Rome and to maintain a retinue of servants.
His compositional output is rather small. He composed two oratorios, which are both lost. None of his works have have been printed during his lifetime, except some pieces that were included as examples in the publications of Athanasius Kircher, who was one of his admirers. His extant oeuvre includes five cantatas and three arias, but the remaining works are all instrumental. Among them are pieces for one or several plucked instruments (lute, theorbo, guitar) and pieces for strings in three parts: three sonatas and 24 sinfonie. It is documented that they were played on Christmas Eve at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The Ensemble Giardino di Delizie recorded nine of the latter, which appear on disc for the first time. They comprise four to six movements – unfortunately not specified in the track-list – and always include one movement in the form of a fugue. There can be litle doubt about the fact that they contributed to the development of the trio sonata. Peter Allsop, in New Grove, writes that one of the musicians who was involved in the oratorio performances mentioned above, was Arcangelo Corelli, and that he undoubtedly was influenced by Colista.
It is notable that some of the Sinfonie include episodes, between the first and second movements, where Colista indicates that the violins and the melodic bass instruments can improvise – solo se piace (only if desired) – on a framework provided by the basso continuo. Here Colista offers the performers the opportunity to show their skills in the improvisation department, an art that was highly revered at the time and an important part of musical life.
These Sinfonie are very nice pieces, and it is hard to understand why they have been almost completely ignored. The Ensemble Giardino di Delizie shows that these pieces deserve to be better known, and are the ideal advocates of Colista and his music.
In the second half of the 17th century Alessandro Stradella was one of the main Italian composers. He was highly respected as a singer, compared with the mythological Orpheus, and as a composer of vocal music, in particular operas. In our time he is mainly known for his turbulent lifestyle which resulted in his being murdered, and his oratorio San Giovanni Battista. In the last twenty years or so his oeuvre has been given more attention. The fact that all his extant oratorios are now available on disc, attests to that.
In comparison, instrumental music represents a minor part of his oeuvre. However, as he was the first to juxtapose a concertino and a ripieno, he laid the foundation of what was to become the concerto grosso, one of the main genres of instrumental music in the first half of the 18th century. In 2015 Brilliant Classics released a recording of Stradella’s complete sinfonias for two violins and basso continuo, performed by the Ensemble Arte Musica. Some of these pieces were originally written as overtures to dramatic vocal works. That recording also includes two sinfonias for violin, cello and basso continuo, which are also part of the recording by the Ensemble Giardino di Delizie. However, the main part of this production is taken by twelve Sinfonias for violin and basso continuo. They are of different length and differ in the number of movements, which are unfortunately not specified in the track-list.
Stradella was not a professional violinist, and it is therefore not surprising that technical virtuosity is not the main feature here. Even so, several pieces include passages with double stopping, for instance the Sinfonia No. 3 in d minor and the Sinfonia No. 12 in a minor. The latter is one of the longest and most brilliant pieces of the set, as it is largely based on a basso ostinato. Remarkable is also the Sinfonia No. 11 in a minor, another long piece, which is full of modulations. The Sinfonia No. 2 in D is one of those which include chromaticism. Counterpoint and imitation are among the dominant features of these sinfonias.
Stradella may have been mainly active as a composer of vocal music, these sinfonias – and those for two violins – are certainly not minor works. They are serious and important contributions to the instrumental repertoire of the late 17th century, and they are taken as such by the Ensemble Giardino di Delizia, which delivers excellent and often exciting performances. This production is the perfect sequel to the above-mentioned disc of the Ensemble Arte Musica.
The third man in this company is Carlo Ambrogio Lonati, one of the most brilliant violinists of his time. He was born in Milan and was educated as a singer and a violinist. In the mid-1660s he was in Naples, where he worked as violinist in the royal chapel and sang in a production of Cavalli’s opera Scipione africano. This role was a comical one, and the singing of such roles was to be his fate, as he was physically handicapped. Soon after he settled in Rome, where he entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had moved to Rome after her abdication, following her conversion to Catholicism. It earned him the nickname of ‘the queen’s hunchback’. He also acted as a composer of operas and as an impresario, responsible for the performance of operas by other composers. In these capacities he worked for a few years in Genoa, where he was joined by his close friend Stradella. When the latter was murdered, Lonati was deported from Genoa and a few years later he was in Mantua. He likely spent the last years of his life in Milan. He must have had contacts to the imperial court in Vienna, as he dedicated a volume of cantatas and his violin sonatas of 1701 to Emperor Leopold I.
Like Colista, Lonati is not that well represented on disc. Gunar Letzbor recorded nine of his twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo from the above-mentioned collection of 1701. The Sinfonias for two violins and basso continuo which are the subject of the recording by the Ensemble Giardino di Delizie were never printed, and have been preserved in manuscript. We have here early forms of what was to become one of the main genres of instrumental music: the trio sonata. However, whereas in the first half of the 18th century trio sonatas were usually intended for (good) amateurs, Lonati’s Sinfonias are well beyond their grasp. Antonella D’Ovidio, in her liner-notes, states that they were played at several occasions, such as liturgical festivities, in academic circles and at social gatherings of aristocratic families. This indicates that the players may have been mostly professionals.
The production raises several questions. The pieces are called sinfonias, and that is how they are entitled in the track-list, but the liner-notes consistently refer to them as sonatas. According to New Grove, there are nine sinfonias, numbered from A1 to A9 in the catalogue by Peter Allsop. However, this recording includes ten sinfonias. Where does the tenth comes from? The liner-notes also refer to the sinfonias with the number in Allsop’s catalogue, but these are not included in the track-list. And as the liner-notes don’t give the key, the reader is left in the dark as which sinfonia is meant. There is also mentioning of several movements, but the track-list only has the sinfonias without any specification of the various movements. This is all a bit disappointing; this recording deserves a higher production standard.
Fortunately there is nothing wrong with the performances. Who has heard the solo sonatas won’t be surprised about the musical qualities and the technical requirements of these Sinfonias. It makes this set a worthy sequel to Letzbor’s recording of the solo sonatas. The qualities of these piece are impressively demonstrated by the Ensemble Giardino di Delizie. In every respect this recording is as good as the previous ones. Like the pieces by Colista and Stradella, Lonati’s sinfonias deserve more attention, and this ensemble is their perfect advocate.
I am looking forward to further discoveries by this ensemble.
Johan van Veen (© 2021)