Geminiani Gains a Champion: An Interview with Liana Mosca
The Stradivarius label has released a first volume CD (STR 33853), containing six of the op. 4
Sonate a violino e basso
(all in major keys; the six minor-key sonatas await Volume 2) by the baroque master Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762), a release that features Liana Mosca on a 1750 violin fitted to period practices, as well as Antonio Mosca (her father) on a Grancino cello, Luca Pianca on archlute, and Giorgio Paronuzzi on harpsichord. Robert Maxham praised the recorded sound, the expressive and conversationally articulated performances, and the music (surprisingly rarely encountered given Geminiani’s stature in the history of the violin) in a review published in
36:2. Since my own record collection is unforgivably spotty when it comes to the music of Geminiani, I welcomed Joel Flegler’s invitation to interview, via a series of e-mailed conversations, the Zurich-born violinist, violist, and viola d’amorist, who has come to be associated with several of Europe’s many fine period-instrument ensembles. My questions appear below in italics, and my comments in square brackets.
My first questions concerned her early studies, musical upbringing, and how she came to focus on period instruments and performance practices.
LM: I did not have a traditional music education. My background and training as an artist/violinist are related to my family life and to my parents’ knowledge as musicians. Briefly, my mother [Lee Robert Mosca] studied viola at Wichita State University, Kansas, and at London’s Royal College of Music. My father studied cello in Rome, at the Saint Cecilia Academy. He was a pioneer in rediscovering period instruments.
My first violin teacher was my mother. As a Suzuki teacher, she taught me following the philosophy of Dr. Sinichi Suzuki, where the point is to “educate” the child through the violin. But I am sure you know the philosophy of the Suzuki method. So I spent many years playing with other children and performed a lot in public. I had fun and a great time! Then, I decided to become a professional musician and went to the Milan Conservatory to study with Osvaldo Scilla. He was a student of Alberto Poltronieri (1892-1981), coming from the Milan violin school of Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841). [Veteran record collectors might recall the 78-rpm chamber music discs that Poltronieri recorded with pianist Alfredo Casella.] With Scilla I focused on advanced technique and technical possibilities, also taking care of posture. By the way, during my time studying at the Milan Conservatory, Baroque music was taught in a romantic style. Later, I studied with Hansheinz Schneeberger [b.1926; I reviewed his unaccompanied Bach in
12:6] in Switzerland, at the Basel
, one of the most important crossroads for European artists. An open-minded artist, he belonged to a very different violin school; he was a student of Carl Flesch. This was a very different school of violin technique from what I knew, but was helpful in developing an open mind. There, in Basel, I started to have lessons at the
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
’s section for early music). I went there with the modern violin, to learn about phrasing and “correct” baroque style.
I really found my way when I met my friends of
[“The Harmonic Garden”]. At that time I was not really a specialist in Baroque music, but they took me into the group after an audition. The next 15 years of playing, studying, and discovering music with them made the difference in my maturity as an artist today. Although I had learned virtuoso Romantic repertoire, I did not see impressing the public with virtuosity as an end in itself. That is why I started playing a lot of ancient music, where I could feel the purity of the vibrations, be more free to express myself, and share with others the deep sound of profundity and simplicity.
By the way, I have never stopped playing the modern violin. When I perform modern music I adopt the same ideas of studying the period style, the geographic and cultural provenance of the composer, and so on. I will record next year a CD with my modern-instrument string trio. I believe it is necessary to study the violin repertoire having a general view of the entire developing history of the instrument, and to be able to play to the highest technical degree, before specializing in one period. After that, I think the artist has to perform as an artist of the 21st century. I mean, for example, we will never be able to entirely reproduce the music of the Baroque era, because we cannot have the same aural perception. I believe that being specialized means playing with good equilibrium between historic knowledge and the performer’s personality. The music has to be understood and reinvented every time.
DKN: Quite apart from matters of repertoire and the various period-performance practices, are there special physical difficulties, or advantages for that matter, in learning and then maintaining these dual approaches: playing professionally on the period instrument as well as the modern instrument with its chin rest, shoulder pad, and such?
LM: I don’t mind if a period violinist plays with chin rests and shoulder pads—even in the past there was not just one way, one technique. Both of my “modern” violin teachers never used a shoulder pad! I don’t especially like absolute “Baroquists” saying that
know the “right” technique. If you have awareness of the different ancient violin methods, it is clear there was great variety and differences in the violin-schools. There is not one historical way to play. There are many. The point is playing with good taste (as Geminiani said!).
Geminiani is not very detailed in his method [his famous
Art of Playing the Violin
, published in 1751] about posture. But the transmission of posture was much more through imitation than books. First of all, as my teacher taught me, posture and the instrumental technique have to be related to the personal body. Of course, without shoulder pads the sound can change, but then, the construction of the sound-post and the bass bar change the sound of the violin. It would take too long to speak about all of this. The main differences playing a historical instrument are the gut strings and the bow technique. The curved bow together with the different reaction of gut strings under pressure gives the performer many more possibilities to speak with the violin, much more than with stiff metal strings and a rigid modern bow. It is a fantastic experience; it gives freedom!
By the way, we recorded the Geminiani with the harpsichord using Werckmeister III temperament. This was difficult for me, for the double-stopping, but gave a beautiful color to the sound. [Her reference is to Andreas Werckmeister’s temperaments or tuning systems of 1691, and Werckmeister III’s challenges to a violinist include the fifths D-A and A-E: narrowed on the keyboard, but perfect fifths on the open strings of the violin.]
DKN:Let’s talk about Geminiani, a genuine first hand pupil of Corelli (as opposed to the many Baroque violinists of the Corelli school who studied instead under Giovanni Batista Somis). He enjoyed an international career as a virtuoso, particularly in the British Isles. He was a busy composer, in particular of concerti grossi, and those scores are goldmines of performance indications and details. Yet, while isolated sonatas were in the repertoires of Milstein, Hirschhorn, Staryk, and some others, the “baroque boom” of the 1950s and ’60s largely seemed to pass Geminiani by. Period-instrument players clearly all benefit from careful study of Geminiani’s important (if starchily opinionated) books on styles of violin, cello, and continuo performance, but the movement itself has hardly been as kind to him from a performance standpoint.
LM: We decided to record the op. 4 sonatas after having performed them in concerts. At the beginning of this adventure, I did not have particular familiarity with this composer. It was just for the pleasure of reading music. After a few concerts we had the feeling this music had greater potential than we had realized. We read all his treatises and thought them over very carefully, especially on the way to play accompaniment and to analyze the technique of the bow, by which I mean rubato technique, phrasing, and contrasting “affects.” Many musicians of the time were trying to develop their own personal characteristics. The common praxis-codes for improvisation were very much developed, but many musicians also began to take care to write down more details and indications. François Couperin, for example, indicated not to add extra embellishments to his music, but to play only his embellishments, so as not to change the sense of the music. The composer Azzolino della Ciaja [1671-1755] in his cembalo sonatas wrote many more expressive indications than were normally used. We know that Allesandro Scarlatti wrote down in a notebook many indications to explain how to perform his operas. These
, unfortunately lost, were sent to the conductors of his operas.
So, Geminiani started to carefully write down the details, as you said. His indications are among the best possibilities for playing the instrument. We believe that all of Geminiani’s expressions, bowing indications, and phrasing reflect a soloist’s mentality and refer more to his soloistic way of playing, maybe as a revenge against the orchestral standard of playing. Remember that he was dismissed as the first violin from the Naples orchestra. Nobody could follow him, because of his personal rubato way of playing. For these reasons Tartini called him “Il Furibondo” (The Furious). I was attracted to the different atmosphere and images between the slower movements, including the
where I could explore different colors of sound and try to make long musical lines, and in many of the
s, looking for that furious side. I had the feeling of being able to bring out different sides of myself through these compositions.
I think many violinists may have put him aside because it is not so easy to understand his fragmentary writing. This reflects his complex, inconstant character or, as you suggest, a difficult personality. So we took our time to try to get his point of view, and later we slowly took a progressive distance from theory and treatise. We did not want to perform a demonstration of treatistic theory. The idea was to enter into his real individual experience and get the rhetorical, emotive, and theatrical part of his music, and finally, then, to perform his music with our personal sensibility.
DKN: When someone is as prolific and specific an explainer as Geminiani was, is there a danger in mistaking what he writes for neutral descriptions of common performance practices? Might it not be that he felt surrounded by musicians who were all doing it “wrong” and needed correction, according to his lights? In his own time he was noted for his almost stubborn adherence to Corelli’s influence, and some modern writings have sniffed that Geminiani’s chief value was keeping alive a “cult of Corelli” in England.
LM: It is important to understand that the executive process, or praxis, of a virtuoso violinist like him becomes with passing time more and more individual. It is useful to read his indications in context, for example, remembering that the bowings for the orchestra are different than the bowings of a soloist. Maybe he really thought that others were doing it “wrong,” but probably, as with each great soloist, he was trying to make a clean cut or break with the usual way of expression.
About Corelli. We have one interesting document, a treatise on harpsichord accompaniment written by Michel Corrette [1707-1795]. Corrette says the French violinists were not able to play chords and so they had to play Corelli’s sonatas, op. 5, with more than one violinist. This is to say that at that time Corelli’s art and technique were much more developed and absolutely superior, so of course it made Geminiani famous to have been an important student of Corelli. Such a background opened the doors for him to become famous; he had the honor to be invited to give a concert for King George I of England, accompanied by Handel.
I think Geminiani did not strive for a position as an orchestral leader, like Corelli; he developed much more a soloist’s sensibility. When the public refers to Geminiani, they mostly think about the concerti grossi. It is clear that baroque music is based on
, on stylistic features and similar structure, but considering the op. 4 sonatas, Geminiani, like Handel, could also write in French style. He brought this style of extreme virtuosity to emphasize the theatrical affects of the human soul. This point is not related to his teacher’s style, although the harmonic structure is typical of Corelli. The “conduction” of the violin part is incredibly different. It is another world. I invite he who is saying that Geminiani was only keeping alive the “cult of Corelli” to discover the op. 4!
DKN: Can you say anything about future recordings plans?
LM: Now that we finished recording the op. 4 (I don’ remember if I told you, we just finished in September and it will come out next year) I will go on to discover his other compositions. We are discussing continuing to record other Geminiani compositions. It may take time, but I think yes, we will do it. For sure I will record, next year, music by Boccherini and a French composer of the 1700s, for fortepiano and violin. I will do it with the Swiss pianist Pierre Goy. He will play on an Erard fortepiano. Then a CD of music by Max Reger with modern instruments. But unfortunately I am not allowed to tell you more!
Violin Sonatas Op 4: Nos. 1; 3; 6; 7; 10; 12
Liana Mosca (vn); Antonio Mosca (vc); Luca Pianca (lt); Giorgio Paronuzzi (hpd)
STRADIVARIUS 33853 (67:41)