Giovanni PAISIELLO (1741-1816)
Much of Giovanni Paisiello's music earns him the right to beknown as a great composer, although this fails fully to capture hisachievements, a fact which has not perhaps been acknowledged with sufficientconviction by musical scholarship. He stands head and shoulders above the otherItalian composers of his generation. A pupil of the Neapolitan School, he had asupreme, even heaven-sent gift for melody, although from a certain pointonwards the influence of Vienna is clearly visible: the compositional procedures,for example the highly individual development or development/variationtechniques, of his later operatic works in particular, are closely related tothose of the Viennese School, and, more specifically, those of Joseph Haydn.Haydn, of course, was second only to Mozart in late-eighteenth-century Italianopera composition. At this point, and in the light of Paisiello's exquisitesettings of texts such as Metastasio's Passione, it seems apposite to askwhether the remainder of his music should not in fact earn him the title ofgenius.
Paisiello's skill in the composition of opera was remarkableeven in his earliest works, and notably not only when it came to farce andsentimental works such as Nina, but also in his tragedies, especially as hegrew older. Indeed as the years passed his work became more daring andinnovative in all respects, be it form, harmony, drama or orchestration. One ofhis greatest operas is Proserpine, commissioned by Napoleon, then First Consulof France, for whose coronation \Sacre" Paisiello would also later provide themusic. Some have said that "'o Tarantino", as he became known, after his hometown of Taranto, barely mastered Italian and that for him setting French tomusic was an enterprise that could only end in failure. Nevertheless not onlyis Proserpine a powerful and highly sophisticated work, it also had somethingto teach native French composers in its adaptation of the forms peculiar totragedie lyrique and in its French prosody, as confirmed by Jean Fran?ºois Le Sueur,who taught Berlioz.
The eight concertos Paisiello wrote at various pointsthroughout his life for keyboard and small orchestra clearly show that he musthave been an excellent pianist and harpsichordist. They were conceivedaccording to his very personal take on sonata form, and it would not beinappropriate to say that both the style and idiom are more advanced here thanis the form itself, in terms of the kinship with Haydn which I believe to beone of the keys to understanding Paisiello's work. Unlike Mozart, Paisiello didnot write concertos with the intention of performing them himself, but oncommission for noble and, one hopes, generous clients. They were tailor-madecompositions, but not, I repeat, for Paisiello himself. These were not worksthat he would have felt compelled to compose for their own sake alone, and anyjudgements made on historical-aesthetic grounds must bear this in mind.
It would be foolish to ask today whether these pieces shouldbe played on the harpsichord, the hybrid fortepiano, or the modern pianoforte.The first two options must be rejected on the basis of Hans Ferdinand Redlich'scondemnatory term musealer Klangmaterialismus, in other words, the attempt toreplicate the sound of an obsolete instrument. Performed by a skilledharpsichordist the concertos sound elegantly old-fashioned to our ears; playedby a less skilled musician they come across as unbearably dry and dogmatic. Inthe hands of a pianist who understands their musical essence and has thetechnique to turn it into sound, they become the ideal historically awareresponse. Entrusted to a bad pianist they become redolent of the 1930s, againsounding dreadful to a modern audience. On a fortepiano they simply sound asthough someone has put the newsprint pages on the strings of an upright piano,not to mention the problems of intonation.
In order to understand the motivation behind this recording,in which we have the pleasure of discovering a stylistically elegant and expertorchestra and conductor, we have to turn to Francesco Nicolosi, who hasacquired a reputation as one of our greatest living pianists. His expertiseextends across the repertoire, including the most virtuosic pieces ever writtenfor the instrument, and listening to him playing the operatic paraphrases ofSigismond Thalberg, an adopted son of Naples like both Paisiello and Nicolosi,is enough to remind us that no one today can match his luminosity of sound, hisability to draw out the song-like legato qualities of a keyboard instrument.
The two concertos recorded here could not be more differentin terms of style and ethos. In the first, which is in a somewhat stiff andstarchy Classical style, Nicolosi adopts the poised arm technique, imbuing thepiano with the penetrating crystalline sonority which might be said to be theessence of the harpsichord.
The Concerto in G minor is an extraordinary piece,comparable to Haydn's Sturm und Drang works, principally those dating from theearly 1770s. Paisiello consciously brings to it, therefore, a formaldevelopment belonging to a very different and composite architecture. Melodramaplays its part in this masterpiece, since, transformed, it adds to the pathosdeveloped by the soloist using every technique at his disposal with anorchestra which sometimes accompanies and at other times works in diametricopposition to the pianist. As the song-like element prevails here Nicolosiadopts a more sophisticated and complex technique, creating sustained legato bymeans of "arm weight", a technique codified in the mid-nineteenth century byThalberg in his treatise L'Art du chant applique au piano expressing hisphilosophy of the sublime sprezzatura (rehearsed spontaneity) of performancepractice.
Everything changes in the second movement:eighteenth-century pathos disappears and the solemnity of a steplike andornamented E flat major can only be compared to the young Beethoven. The secretof Paisiello's heavenly inspiration and skill in developing it must be amystery to all but Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.
Paisiello, prophet of Beethoven -- who would believe it? Andthe sound produced by Francesco Nicolosi in this central movement is no lessmiraculous than the music itself, barely distinguishable from the bestcontralto voice, enabling the notes to be transformed from the page to reality.It is also worth noting that this recording from the Caserta Palace courttheatre, where Paisiello's music was often performed during his lifetime, isabsolutely without artificial embellishment, having been made without use ofdomes or other effects. The writer must at this point assume fullresponsibility for his words. The great Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli performedeighteenth-century works, Scarlatti, Galuppi, the concertos of Mozart, which,with the exception of the Mozart, were considered by most to be harpsichordmusic. His inspiration came principally from the same source as Nicolosi's, butperhaps lacked some of the latter's lucidity and coherence. Nicolosi is nowperfecting the process begun by Michelangeli.
Translation: Susannah Howe