“This is, indeed, a garden of delights!”

Lelio COLISTA (1629-1680)
Sinfonie a tre
Sinfonia in F, W-K26 [9:05]
Sinfonia in A, W-K22 [9:01]
Sinfonia in C, W-K14 [4;39]
Sinfonia in E minor, W-K31 [7:17]
Sinfonia in C, W-K13 [9:25]
Sinfonia in B-flat, W-K28 [6:20]
Sinfonia in G, W-K37 [9:36]
Sinfonia in C, W-K10 [5:35]
Sinfonia in F, W-K25 [9:08]
Ballo in tre in G minor, W-K41 [3:54]
World premiere recordings.
Ensemble Giardino di Delizie
rec. November 4-7, 2019; Chiesa di San Francesco, Trevi (Umbria).

This is, indeed, a garden of delights!

It has to be admitted that some of the baroque composers whose work has been rediscovered (and recorded) in recent decades are minor figures, obscure and little noted even during their lifetimes and of real interest only to specialist scholars nowadays. Their works are the sort of thing an unsympathetic friend of mine dismisses as “music for musicologists”, perhaps remembering Sir Thomas Beecham’s characteristically cruel witticism, “a musicologist is a man who can read music, but can’t hear it”. Both my friend and Sir Thomas are guilty of severe exaggeration. Such judgements are, however, wholly inappropriate where Lelio Colista is concerned.

Who was Colista? His abilities, as a performer (he played several instruments, notably the lute, the guitar, the theorbo and the harp as well as singing) and as a composer, were much admired in his own day; many relevant instances are quoted in the excellent notes by Pasquale Imbrenda (to which I am indebted for many of the details which follow) accompanying this thoroughly enjoyable CD, and I shall return to some of these later, In the following centuries ,however, he was almost entirely forgotten until quite recently.

Why? Perhaps primarily because he published none of his music. He thus entrusted his music to the vagaries of manuscript transmission – a process in which much was inevitably lost (including at least two oratorios), while some works perhaps survived separated from his name. It may well be that he chose not to publish his work because he thought publication unbefitting of his social status – which brings us to further matters of biography.

Born in Rome in 1629, the composer was the youngest son of Margherita Riveri de Honorantis and Piero Colista, a Jurist and scholar who was on the staff of the Vatican Library. Lelio became a choirboy and was educated at the Jesuit Collegio Romano. Aged 8, he danced in a Pazzia di Orlando, a ballo co’ gesti, performed in the Palazzo Barberini. His skills as a lutenist were recognised very early and he contributed to many private concerts in aristocratic Roman palazzi. His father’s important connections and his own evident abilities ensured that as he grew older Lelio soon had an established place in the cultural life of Rome. He is known to have played in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore from 1652. He seems to have had friends in the princely family of the Chigi and when Cardinal Fabio Chigi was elected Pope in 1655 (taking the name of Alexander VII) Colista received several remunerative appointments; in 1656 he was listed as one of the 22 squires in the service of the Chigi family and in the same year was made Papal equerry. In 1659 he was appointed custode delle pittura della capella pontificana (Custodian of the paintings in the Papal chapel), i.e. the Sistine Chapel; he held this position until his death in October 1680. From 1657 he was deputy chamberlain to the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Flavio Chigi (1631-93). In 1664, along with the composer, harpsichordist and organist Bernardo Pasquini, Colista accompanied Flavio Chigi on a diplomatic mission as Cardinal Legate to France. In his notes Imbrenda quotes a report on this trip by the composer (and organist) Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni (1657-1743), “The Roman Lelio Colista, renowned player of the lute and guitar, composer of beautiful symphonies, was taken by Legate Card. Chigi to France, where King Louis XIV heard him play and was highly impressed. On his return to Rome many wished to study with him…”. Imbrenda observes that “it was this experience that turned Colista into a musician of international fame”. During the years of Alexander VII’s papacy, Colista was able to invest much of his various salaries (and it seems that he did so wisely).

After Alexander VII died in May 1667, Colista, perhaps because some were jealous of his success, left Rome for Bologna. Though his stay in Bologna was not lengthy it is very possible that, as Imbrenda suggests, the example of Colista’s music influenced the work of Bolognese composers such as Bononcini (1642-78) and Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-92). Colista was, however, back in Rome by September 1669, since on the 8th of that month he married Margarita Petrignani, daughter of a minor Roman painter, Girolamo Petrignani. The marriage produced 6 children. A few years later Colista served as ‘concertino lutenist’ in oratorios by several composers performed in Rome in the holy (or Jubilee) year of 1675. One of the younger members of the orchestra, which also included Bernardo Pasquini and violinist Carlo Manelli, was violinist Arcangelo Corelli (born in Bologna, 1653) who had made his way to Rome to study with Manelli.
The brief biographical narrative above makes clear, I hope, something of the regard in which Lelio Colista was held by his contemporaries. It can be supplemented by some of the things they said about him. That remarkable man Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), a man summed up in the full title of Joscelyn Godwin’s fascinating 1979 book on him: Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge: A Late Renaissance Philosopher and Scientist, was perhaps not an impartial witness, since he and Colista knew one another from the years the latter spent at the Collegio Romano. Still, it is worth noting that in his book Musurgia Universalis (1650) Kircher wrote of Colista that he was “in truth the Orpheus of the city of Rome” (veré Romanae Urbis Orpheus) and a famous singer” (insignis Cytharaedus). Corelli (in the preface to his 12 Trio Sonatas, opus 1) numbered Colista among the “major Roman professors of music” (più professori musici di Roma). The famous singer and composer Antonio Cesti, in a letter of 1668 to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, described Colista as one “who composes for and plays the lute excellently, a true virtuoso of the highest quality.” Imbrenda tells us that “Henry Purcell spoke of the famous Lelio Colista” in the 12th edition, which he revised, of John Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, published in 1694”; I have been unable, however, to find the phrase in the single copy of the 1694 edition to which I have had access. That Purcell admired Colista is not, though, in doubt – in the entry on Colista in The New Grove (1980), Michael Tilmouth writes that Colista was “undoubtedly the most important of the Italian models for Henry Purcell’s trio sonatas.” In his 1995 biography of Purcell, Jonathan Keates identifies Colista as “someone who caught the young Purcell’s attention at a crucial moment”. Colista’s music was played in London concerts during the late 17th century according to Denis Stevens. Some of Colista’s works circulated in manuscript in England either side of 1700. I remember being shown, some years ago, in the library of Christ Church, Oxford a manuscript [Mus.1126] containing 6 sonatas or parts of sonatas by Colista. I noted that the catalogue of Christ Church Library says “these works probably formed part of the repertory of Oxford city/university waits or ‘musick’.” A last illustration of Colista’s fame: The Spanish guitarist and composer Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) chose to study with Colista in Rome and when, in 1674 he published his important book Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española he singled out Colista for praise calling him (perhaps consciously recalling Kircher’s words), “Orfeo de estos tiempos” (the Orpheus of these times); another of Colista’s pupils was Daniel Eberlin, the German violinist and composer (and, incidentally, father-in-law of Telemann). Colista and his work were, in short, famous across Europe and widely admired by respected judges, though largely overlooked in ensuing centuries.

As a consequence of this ‘disappearance’, Colista is entirely absent from representative scholarly studies such as Manfred F. Bukofzer’s Music in the Baroque Era (1947/48) and William S. Newman’s The Sonata in the Baroque Era (1959) . So far as I am aware, the ‘rediscovery’ of Lelio Colista effectively began with Helene Wessely’s Lelio Costa: ein römischer Meister vor Corelli (Vienna, 1961). By the time of Julie Ann Sadie’s Companion to Baroque Music (1990), Colista was sufficiently well-known to merit an individual entry, which contains the observation that “by their imitative counterpoint, the chains of suspensions and ‘walking basses’, Colista’s trios anticipate the achievements of Corelli and, although forgotten in Italy in the wake of the younger man’s polished chamber music, they were performed elsewhere in Europe, well into the 18th century.” Scholarship on Colista was greatly aided by the publication in 2002 (in Rome) of H. Wessely-Kropik’s Lelio Colista: un maestro romano prima di Corelli. (I presume that the H. Wessely-Kropik responsible for the 2002 book is the same Helene Wessely who wrote the 1961 book, later publishing under her married name).

The sinfonie played on this disc appear to have been written during the years of Alexander VII’s pontificate and are known to have been performed in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome on Christmas Eve, 1664. They are delightful works which display both a genuine lyricism and well-made counterpoint, with a powerful, if relatively narrow, emotional expressiveness. All of the works recorded here (for the first time) are taken from a manuscript [Giordano 15] in the Biblioteca Nazionale (Turin). They are played by a superb ensemble made up of two baroque violins (Eva Anna Augustynowicz and Katarzyna Solecka; the first of these also being the artistic director of Giardino di Delizie), one baroque cello, played by Valeria Brunelli, plus Fabrizio Carta who plays the archlute on some tracks and the baroque guitar on others, and Elisabetta Ferri (who alternates between harpsichord and organ). Eva Anna Augustynowicz plays 1st violin on tracks 2, 4-5,7 and 9, while Katarzyna Solecka is 1st violin on the remaining tracks. Colista’s sinfoniefollow a basic four-‘movement’ pattern, in which the first movement is usually slow and melodious, sometimes with a melancholy quality, with some admirable contrapuntal writing in later movement(s).

It is some time since the work of a ‘forgotten’ baroque composer gave me as much pleasure as this world premiere recording. The performances of Giardino di Delizie are subtle but energetic, by turns thoughtful and vivacious. The ensemble work seems (I don’t have access to scores) utterly perfect; Giardino di Delizie, founded by Ms. Agustynowicz in 2014 and based in Rome had already made a favourable impression on me in two previous recordings on Brilliant Classics – a 2 CD set of the Complete Sinfonias of Carlo Ambrogio Lonati (BC 95590) and the anthology Gems of the Polish Baroque (BC 95955). This, I suggest, is an even more important recording which should do much to restore Colista’s reputation and make it easier to see his importance in the music of the Italian baroque.

Glyn Pursglove