“An Italian in Vienna: Duos by MAURO GIULIANI” = Grand Duo Concertante in A Major, Op. 85; Sérénade in G Major, Op. 127; Grande Sérénade in D Major, Op. 82; Gran Duetto Concertante in A Major, Op. 52 – Louise Schulman, viola / Bill Zito, guitar – Sono Luminus DSL-92138 [Distr. by Naxos], 78:09 ****:
An Italian in Vienna is an apt title for this album. Most of the music presented here was written during Mauro Giuliani’s Viennese sojourn, which lasted from 1806 to 1819, when debts forced Giuliani to return to Italy, where he died ten years later. While in Vienna, Giuliani performed widely, often together with leading composer-performers of the day such as Hummel, Moscheles, and Spohr. The chatty but informative notes to this recording, written by Schulman and Zito, tell us that Giuliani even played in the orchestra that debuted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—not on guitar, of course, but on his other instrument, the cello.
Doing as the Viennese do, Giuliani honored the city’s dedication to the tenets of Classical instrumental composition, writing concertos, sonatas, and rondos, in addition to the potpourris that were all the rage in Vienna at the time. The Grand Duo Concertante from around 1817 is a good example of the sort of music with which Giuliani curried Viennese favor, with its sturdy sonata-allegro first movement, sonata-rondo finale, and spirited if not-quite-Beethovenian scherzo. In fact, while the composer may have been out of Italy, it wasn’t possible to take Italy out of the composer: the works on the current disc, no matter what their formal arrangement, are first and foremost songful in the best Italian fashion. The slow movement of the Grand Duo has the quality of an opera aria, the instrumentalists taking turns with the melody line and then the accompaniment. This undoubtedly did Giuliani’s popularity in the city no harm; about the time the Grand Duo appeared, Rossini’s operas were taking Vienna by storm.
The other works on the program are a bit less formal but no less tuneful. The two serenades feature Giuliani’s favorite form, theme and variations, of which he produced dozens of freestanding versions as well as versions that turn up as slow movements in extended compositions. The variations movements from the two serenades show that Giuliani was a master of the form, able to craft a tender, singing melody that nonetheless lent itself to his inventive transformations. Like divertimentos and serenades of Haydn and Mozart’s day, the Grande Sérénade (which seems to have been written after Giuliani returned to Italy) starts with a jaunty military march.
The three-movement Gran Duetto Concertante was composed around 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, when all of Europe seemed to be one armed camp. The last movement is titled Rondo Militaire, which true to its name is in march rhythm, though in the episodes between the statement of the themes the pace sometimes slackens to a dreamy reflectiveness, while brief minor-key interludes cast shadows across the mostly genial landscape. This is really very attractive music, skillfully written.
In the published versions of all these works, Giuliani stipulated they could be played by either flute or violin and guitar. But Louise Schulman and Bill Zito, who formed their viola-guitar duo in 2001, realized that Giuliani’s music was a fit for them as well: “The mid-range timbre of the viola and guitar give the music a uniquely vocal quality and burnished elegance. . . . Why not then, given a choice of instrumentation, play them on viola and guitar?” Maybe some flutists or violinists have an answer to that question, but having no dog in this fight, my answer is “Well, why not?” I agree with the statement that the pairing gives the music a “vocal quality” that suits the quasi-operatic nature of Giuliani’s writing well. But the pieces do take on a different sound, of course, which is more than just a matter of timbre.
Because the viola is not as nimble an acrobat as the flute, the faster music is taken at a more leisurely pace than you’ll hear in flute-and-guitar performances. This tends to blunt a little the virtuosic nature of the music. And the timbral difference imparts an atmospheric difference as well: these pieces sound mellower, more ruminative—maybe even slightly melancholy—than they do when a flute is chirping away in Giuliani’s sweet melodies. This is not to throw cold water on the enterprise, just to note the differences. Certainly, there’s natural rapport between these players, which lends a seamlessly flowing quality to the music they make together. And the playing is lovely for the most part; Bill Zito’s balance of precise yet spontaneous articulation is especially effective. Clean, intimate recorded sound, too, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.
So no viola jokes from me. These pieces work very well on viola and guitar, and I’m happy to recommend them.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich