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Commentary

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Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies” (Volume 2)

Adrian Bradbury (cello), Oliver Davies (piano)

Meridian CDE 84659

£12.00  Click to buy

So wrote the music critic of the Morning Post following a performance by the Italian cellist, Carlo Alfredo Piatti, on 12 th July 1844, as part of the third of that year’s three matinée concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms organised by the pianist Theodor Döhler (and recalled by Morton Latham in his 1901 monograph Alfredo Piatti - A Sketch).

Piatti’s Operatic Fantasy on three numbers from Bellini’s penultimate opera remained unpublished during his lifetime. It is one of three such fantasias based upon themes by Bellini (La sonnambula and I puritani being the other two operas) that cellist Adrian Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies include on the first volume of Piatti’s Operatic Fantasies which was released on the Meridian label last year, and which has now been followed by this second volume, thereby completing the set of twelve.

Born in Bergamo in 1822, Alfredo Piatti became one of the most renowned cellists of the 19th century. His father was a violinist but the 5-year-old Piatti began learning the cello, under the tutelage of his great-uncle, Zanetti, a music teacher and cellist of considerable accomplishment. By the age of seven he was playing in the local opera orchestra, and subsequently enrolled at the Milan Conservatoire where he received lessons from Vincenzo Merighi until September 1837. A successful performance at the Teatro della Scala in 1838 furnished him with sufficient funds to undertake a European concert tour, earning acclaim in cities such as Venice and Vienna.

Alfredo Piatti, Lithographie von Eduard Kaiser, 1858.jpgAlfredo Piatti (Lithograph by Eduard Kaiser, 1858)

1843 found Piatti in Munich. He met Liszt who invited the cellist to share a concert billing in Paris, gifting him an Amati cello upon learning that financial pressures had forced Piatti to sell his cello and perform on borrowed instruments. (Piatti later own the ‘Piatti’ Stradivarius.) He travelled widely - to Berlin, Breslaw, Dresden, Paris and St Petersburg - arriving in London in 1844, where the cellist who had spent his boyhood playing in the opera orchestras of Bergamo, accompanying the finest bel canto singers of the day, eventually becoming principal cello in Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden.

In London he became a distinguished and celebrated artist and teacher. (As Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielweski explains in The Violoncello and its History, as Professor of Cello at the Royal Academy of Music, Piatti taught many of the day’s finest cellists, Hugo Becker, Robert Hausmann, William Edward Whitehouse, William Henry Squire, Leo Stern and Edward Howell among them.) He became friends with Mendelssohn, who wrote a concerto for him, as did Arthur Sullivan; he gave the British premiere of Schumann’s Cello Concerto.

Piatti’s first private performance in London took place at the house of one Dr Billing, then the medical adviser at the Opera, alongside the Italian singers soprano Giulia Grisi and tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini. The London public first enjoyed his playing on 31st May at the Annual Grand Morning Concert given by Mrs Lucy Anderson, pianist to Queen Victoria, the Morning Post reporting: ‘Signor Piatti, a violoncello performer from Milan, made a most successful debut. He played a fantasia on themes from Lucia ... His style resembles that of Servais; and a clear and liquid tone, with great equality all over the board, struck amateurs as being particularly fine … his certainty and precision were unerring.’

Invited by Döhler to play at the first of the Hanover Square Rooms matinées that year, Piatti gave a solo performance that prompted the critic of the Musical World to eulogise, ‘M. Piatti performed a violoncello fantasia in which he displayed as great a command of this instrument as we ever recollect to have heard’, and the Athenaeum reviewer to observe that Piatti had ‘obviously formed his cantabile playing on that of the singers of his own country’ - an astute comment, given that many subsequent accounts of his playing noted that his cantabile playing offered valuable lessons to vocalists.

Holl Piatti.jpgAlfredo Piatti (Frank Holl, 1871)

A month after his first public London debut, Piatti made his first appearance at a concert of the Philharmonic Society, on 24th June, following Mendelssohn’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with a Cello Fantasia by Friedrich August Kummer. A great raconteur, later in his life Piatti recalled that this was the only time that he heard an English audience call out ‘Bravo’ when he was mid-phrase! The Morning Post praised his ‘magnificent violoncello playing [which] won universal admiration … the perfection of his tone and his evident command over all the intricacies of the instrument’, while the Times judged him ‘a masterly player on the violoncello. In tone, which foreign artists generally want, he is equal to [English cellist Robert] Lindley in his best days; his execution is rapid, diversified and certain, and a false note never by any chance is to be heard.’

Piatti was one of the last cellists to play in the ‘old’ style, without an endpin. A fine composer he enriched his instrument’s repertoire with two concertos, a concertino, a Fantasia romantica and a Sérénade Italienne. He is best known today for his technically demanding 12 Caprices Op.25, though he wrote sonatas, songs (some with cello obbligato), themes and variations and other small works, and produced important editions of 18th-century cello works by Locatelli, Boccherini and Bach.

However, it was his fantasy compositions on operatic themes with which Piatti launched his career and which so dazzled the salons and concert halls of Europe, and it is these 12 Fantasias, many unknown and unheard since performed by Piatti himself, that Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies have ‘exhumed’ from the Piatti archives at the Biblioteca Musicale Gaetano Donizetti in Bergamo, edited, performed, and now recorded in this two-volume set.

Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording ©️ Richard Hughes (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording ©️ Richard Hughes

In conversation, I ask Adrian how this intriguing project had come about. As a boy he had loved Piatti’s music, he explains - all young cellists know and play the Caprices! - and when he was asked to perform at the Royal Academy of Music’s 2011 celebration of their 100-year long residence at their custom-built premises in Marylebone Road, whose music could be more apt than that of Piatti, who for 25 years had been the Academy’s Professor of Cello? Adrian recalls, as a child, hearing his father, clarinettist Colin Bradbury, preparing for recordings of 19th-century repertory with the pianist Oliver Davies, and having explored reviews of Piatti’s playing, he asked Oliver to prepare a score of the unpublished Fantasia on themes from Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, the autograph manuscript of which was photographed and supplied by Dr Annalisa Barzanò, co-author of Signor Piatti - Cellist, Composer, Avant-gardist (2001), and musicologist at the Library G. Donizetti in Bergamo. Oliver studied the cello solo, piano score and orchestral parts, and - taking into account the evidence that they provided of Piatti’s revisions - was able to piece together the jigsaw with considerable certainty. Alongside the Beatrice di Tenda Fantasia, at the RAM Adrian and Oliver also performed the Fantasia on Bellini’s La sonnambula, one of the few of the 12 that has been published. Enthusiastically received, the Fantasias “really lived” through their songs, Adrian suggests.

Listening to Adrian and Oliver perform ‘Souvenir de Beatrice di Tenda (Volume One), I am struck by the way Piatti fuses lyricism and drama, creating a sense that the melodic material is evolving organically and inevitably. And, I’m sure the Morning Post critic would be just as impressed by Adrian’s ability to sing with equal persuasiveness through the extensive melodic phrases, the energetic excursions to the cello’s stratosphere and depths, and the delicate intricacies and ornaments, as he was when he applauded Piatti’s ‘vanquishing’ of seemingly ‘insuperable’ difficulties - I certainly heard pitches at a frequency that I don’t think I’ve heard from a cello before, and beautifully sweet they were too! Moreover, there’s a lovely spontaneity about Oliver’s and Adrian’s playing which seems to conjure the excitement of the opera house and live performance. It’s impossible not smile during the capricious episodes, or to be repeatedly impressed at how such lighter moods segue with deceptive ease into sweet sorrow, or troubled turmoil. Oliver’s interjections are perceptive and sensitive, as if instruments in the pit were being coaxed in their turn to emerge from supportive accompaniments and join the singer in melody.

Autograph manuscript of Parafrasi sulk barcarola del Marino Faliero by Alfredo Piatti ©️Annalisa Barzanò (1).jpgAutograph manuscript of Parafrasi sulk barcarola del Marino Faliero by Alfredo Piatti ©️Annalisa Barzanò

During the following decade, the duo set about preparing all twelve Fantasias, and performing them regularly. Every few days, an email to Annalisa would prompt the swift arrival of the next set of high-resolution photographs in Adrian’s in-box. When he apologised for ‘bothering’ her so regularly, Annalisa explained she had written her book primarily so that Piatti’s music might be heard again. He will “never forget the buzz I felt the first time that I downloaded the manuscript from my drop-box, printed it and placed it on the music stand”. Oliver’s experience and knowledge of the bel canto repertory enabled him to quickly identify the arias upon which Piatti had drawn and as the prepared Fantasies grew in number, then Artist By-Fellows at Churchill College, Cambridge, they gave performances at the College.

Adrian and Oliver present the ‘Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor’ which so impressed the Morning Post reporter, in the second volume of Operatic Fantasies. This disc includes three other Fantasias on operas by Donizetti, who had become a friend of Piatti’s father, Antonio, whilst they were both studying with Simon Mayr in Bergamo. Piatti, who had himself played in the Bergamo premiere of the opera in 1838, selected the climactic closing aria, ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti’, as his starting point, preceding his fantasy on Edgardo’s grief-stricken plea that he might join the dead Lucia in heaven, with an Andante Lento of his own.

The piano’s dark, tense opening resonates with the horrors and histories of the cemetery in with Edgardo sings his lament, and Adrian captures both the vulnerability and despair, tapering Piatti’s drooping phrases beautifully, and the sudden, brief surges of pain and passion during which it seems as if Edgardo’s heart will burst with anguish. Plunges and peaks, supported by rumbling, oscillating octaves, sudden transmute from turbulence to tenderness, as the cello theme voices Edgardo’s transfiguring memories of Lucia’s purity and virtue. Adrian and Oliver persuasively guide the listener through the unfolding variations with an effortless lyricism and technical assurance: the cello’s double-stopped octaves and racing scales of thirds are pinpoint-true, harmonics ring brightly and whisper softly, the athletic demands are understated - but no less impressive - and the melodising unwavering.

Bradbury Hughes.jpgAdrian Bradbury ©️ Richard Hughes

Why had this music languished unheard for so long? Adrian reflects upon the reluctance of Piatti’s contemporaries to perform his music during his lifetime: perhaps they were in awe of his virtuosity and wished to avoid direct comparison? We discuss the subsequent waning of the popularity of the fantasia form, and of the bel canto style itself. Perhaps the Fantasies were just too closely associated with Piatti himself? Adrian draws attention to one Francesco Berger (1834-1933), a celebrated Professor of Piano at the RAM who invited many Italian refugees to perform at his home, noting that ‘it was the fashion then for performances of popular airs - an introduction, air and variation … how strange now.’

Why were Piatti’s Fantasies so popular, I wonder? “It’s the opera in them,” suggests Adrian, “one cannot separate bel canto from Piatti”. The Fantasies “sparkle”, but they are notable not just for their virtuosity: their musicianship is supreme. “All his life Piatti played this repertory. He performed with Verdi’s wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, he shared a stage with the finest singers of his day - Giuditta Pasta, Grisi, Rubini, Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Jenny Lind, Maria Malibran and Michael Balfe. He wrote from the heart, but the ‘style’ is correct: the Fantasias are a delight, but Piatti was not simply ‘dabbling’. They are not a vehicle for virtuosity but, like the Caprices, works of real quality. The virtuosity was taken for granted, it was the musicianship that Piatti put first.” Whereas others cobbled together works which would showcase their skill and dexterity, Piatti took composition seriously and continued studying to the end of his life.

Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies performing in Sala Piatti, Bergamo (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies performing in Sala Piatti, Bergamo

One can hear just what Adrian means when listening to the only Fantasy in these two volumes which is not based upon the music of one of Piatti’s bel canto contemporaries - the ‘Impromptu on an air by Purcell in the Indian Queen’. Piatti wonderfully captures the musical spirit of the English composer, the precise rhythmic emphases that lend such a distinctive quality to Purcell’s songs and airs, the smoothly evolving melodies which Purcell - who might be described as the ‘creator’ of English secular melody - modelled on the Italian style of expressive singing that he studied and admired. But, Piatti integrates Italianate delicacies and graces, the cello interrupting the piano’s simple first phrase with some elaborate flourishes then tenderly duetting with the theme, first joining as one voice, then stroking the line with curls, trills, flights. And, just when it seems that the ground is shifting towards the Italian style, so Piatti shows one to have been deceived. This is not just an example of Piatti’s compositional skill but also of his remarkable ability to assimilate varied material. Adrian’s and Oliver’s performance of Piatti’s stylistic sleights of hand is utterly magical.

Adrian explains that Piatti’s personal experience is integral to these works. The bel canto conductor Jeremy Silver advised Adrian that the Fantasias are fascinating from a conductor’s perspective. “You can see it, for example, in the articulation that Piatti marked in the Lucia part: he uses a special articulation mark - a wavy line - a cantabile indication which he placed over all the operatic phrases. It is to be played ‘legato, almost separate’. It’s as if Piatti is imagining the singers on stage beside him.” The decorative fioritura, the declamation of the recitatives, cadenzas, cadences and ornaments: all are meticulously indicated. “Piatti inhabits a bel canto ‘skin’ in order to communicate the essence of the music.” Similarly, the fingering and portamenti are finely marked. “Even in the Fantasias that were not published [six were published by Ricordi and Schott]. Though he alone played them, we are sure Piatti was always aiming for future publication.”

Adrian Bradbury next to bust of Alfredo Piatti, Sala Piatti, Bergamo (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury next to bust of Alfredo Piatti, Sala Piatti, Bergamo

The bel canto spirit infuses every aspect of these Fantasias, Adrian believes. He found himself listening to and learning from the singing of Joan Sutherland, with regard to how to interpret the ornamentation. “The cello bow becomes the diaphragm; the double-stopping becomes duetting. It must feel as if you are singing; if not, you are in trouble,” he laughs. When the Royal Opera House presented Bellini’s La sonnambula in 2011, Oliver urged Adrian to see the production. Admitting that he had not seen the opera before, Adrian tells me of the tremendous impact that the solo arias, particularly the declamation, had upon him. Hearing the familiar melodies, it was as if he was experiencing them entirely anew, learning again and putting the tunes in context. “String players must listen to singers, and bel canto singers most of all, to learn to play cantabile.”

Adrian hopes that these recordings will lead to the Fantasias becoming valuable and wonderful additions to the repertoire. “And we can’t wait to be allowed to return to Bergamo - so devastated by Covid-19 - to hug the Piatti scholars once more for sharing their manuscripts and to present more of the Fantasias in the wonderful Sala Piatti, with the Frank Holl portrait of Alfredo Piatti looking down at us - approvingly I pray!- from the side of the concert hall.”

Claire Seymour

Adrian Bradbury (cello), Oliver Davies (piano)

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies

Volume One: Souvenir de Beatrice di Tenda*; Souvenir de La sonnambula, Op.5*; Souvenir des Puritani, Op.9*; Capriccio sopra un tema della Niobe, Op.22; Fantasia sopra alcuni motivi della Gemma di Vergy; Impromptu on an air by Purcell in the Indian Queen*

Volume Two: Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor, Op.2; Rondò sulla Favorita*; Souvenir de l’opéra Linda di Chamounix, Op.13; Parafrasi sulla Barcarola del Marino Faliero* Rimembranze del Trovatore, Op.21; Capriccio sur des Airs de Balfe*

*world premiere recording

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