Label: Brana Records
Catalog number: BR 0026
The Italian Collection Volume 2While Eighteenth-century Europe was awash with Enlightenment ideas of progess and rationality, of new-found forms of self-expression and self-determination, composers were, by-and-large, still reliant either on the church or royal patrons for a decent living. Even the most enlightened of monarchs continued to wield enormous power, making and breaking careers without pausing for breath. Both composers represented here spent some years at the Russian court of the mighty Catherine the Great where life was not always easy for them, despite being influential figures of their day. Even at this relatively progessive court where intellectual giants like Voltaire and Diderot were welcomed by the self-styled ‘philosopher on the throne’, composers were little more than functionaries, promptly delivering music for a range of purposes: opera to reflect Catherine’s wealth and power; occasional pieces to celebrate the Empress; and marches dance music and didactic works for the court’s pleasure.Vincenzo Manfredini: Concerto in B Flat MajorVincenzo Manfredini (1737-1799) reached the Russian court in St Petersburg in his early twenties after leaving Italy for Moscow with his brother, a noted castrato and teacher. He was soon appointed as maestro di cappella to Pyotr Fedorovich who, on becoming Emperor Peter III in 1762, promoted him to the enviable position of maestro of the Imperial Court’s Italian opera company. Peter reigned for only six months as Emperor before being forced to abdicate by his wife, Catherine, who became Empress of Russia and confirmed Manfredini in his position. Despite her many reforms, free-thinking court and links to Europe’s great artistic personalities, Catherine the Great was no fan of music, but maintained the opera company for the prestige it brought to her rule. The position proved something of a poisoned chalice for Manfredini, who appears to have made no lasting impression with his operatic and occasional works. And with the arrival of the brilliant opera buffa composer, Baldassare Galuppi in 1765, Manfredini was downgraded to composing ballet music and teaching harpsichord to the heir apparent, Paul Petrovich.After leaving the court in 1769, Manfredini continued composing operas for a time but was soon devoting most of his time to writing and teaching. His writings reveal a man in tune with Enlightenment thought, grappling with the changing nature of music, the social status of composers and the role music has to play in public life. Although a composer of many operas, he argued for the ascendancy of instrumental music and thus it is fitting that his best known work is the Concerto in B Flat Major. The work shows off the principles of the classical concerto form in a delightful fashion – from the contrasting thrusting and lilting themes of the opening allegro, through a poised, thoughtful slow movement to the finale’s bright, punchy dance in duple time.Giovanni PaisielloPiano Concerto in F majorPiano Concerto in C majorWhile Manfredini’s influence rested largely in his writings, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) became one of the most successful, sought-after and prolific opera composers of his day, producing over 90 stage works in 35 years. Born in Taranto, Italy, he began staging his operas in Bologna in 1764, before moving on to Naples where he managed to complete an astonishing 40 operas in just 10 years. While his music had the approval of the King of Naples, he seems to have lost royal favour through attempting to wriggle his way out of a marriage contract, a misdemeanour that put him in prison for a time. By 1776, Catherine the Great had stepped in, eager to secure the services of the latest operatic star composer to become her maestro di cappella. So, only 14 years after Manfredini, Paisiello found himself in the same court, under the same monarch and in a similar musical position. However unsympathetic to music Catherine might have been, she secured his services at a salary of 3000 Roubles, increasing the figure by a third for a second three year term. While in St Petersburg, he composed one of his most celebrated operas, Il barbiere di Siviglia – a work which remained internationally popular for 40 years until the audacious 23 year-old Rossini took the operatic world by storm in 1815 with his own version of The Barber of Seville. Paisiello remained in Catherine’s service for eight years after which his career becomes remarkable for its twists and turns and outrageous fortune. Returning to Naples where his operas held new-found favour at King Ferdinand IV’s court, he dramatically turned his back on public acclaim by completing commissions from religious institutions for masses and other liturgical music. He accepted a position at Naples Cathedral and when French-funded republican forces seized control of Naples, he became maestro di cappella to the republic after his employer, the King, had fled the city. When King Ferdinand recaptured Naples, Paisiello was pardoned, reinstated and then promptly left for France where Napoleon Bonaparte appointed him as his private head of music and had him write the mass for Naploeon’s self-installation as Emperor of France in 1804. Returning again to Naples, Paisiello appears to have been pardoned one more time, re-assuming all of his royal appointments until his death in 1816.Despite his huge output of operas and church music, Paisiello didn’t neglect instrumental composition, as the two piano concertos on this disc well demonstrate. Both concertos were tailored to the techniques of two ladies of the day. The Concerto in F Major was written for his most august pupil at the Imperial Court in St Petersburg, the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, wife of the same heir to the throne, Paul Petrovich, to whom Manfredini was musical tutor. The Grand Duchess had engaged Paisiello as her private teacher soon after his appointment to the court and the concerto’s extraordinarily simple solo part reflects her technical limitations at the keyboard. Nevertheless, it is to Paisiello’s credit that he makes so much of her simple gifts through his lyrical brilliance, humour and good taste, disguising the Duchesses weak left-hand technique with bubbling strings figurations and instrumental interplay. The Concerto in C Major was written for a certain Signora Sinavane who was undoubtedly an altogether more proficient performer. Rapid scale passages, arpeggios and a range of keyboard effects never overshadow Paisliello’s lyrical poise and the slow movement boasts sublimely shifting harmonies that could happily grace one of Mozart’s piano concertos.© M. Ross
This album presents the piano concertos of Manfredini and Paisiello who both spent some years at the Russian Court of the mighty Catherine the Great, where they composed music to reflect Catherine’s wealth and power including marches, dance music and didactic works for the court’s pleasure.