Noesis | 19th Century Masterworks for Two Guitars

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Noesis – 19th Century Masterworks for two Guitars
Music by Napoléon Coste, Antoine de Lhoyer, Mauro Giuliani, Johann Kaspar Mertz

Produced by Matteo Mela & Lorenzo Micheli
Executive Producer Raffi Meneshian
Recording: Ivrea (Turin), Italy, SMC, 27 & 28 May 2008
Recording Engineer & Supervisor: Renato Campajola
Digital Editing: Mario Bertodo
Mastering: Renato Campajola
Design and Photography by Arsineh Khachikian
Liner Notes by Lorenzo Micheli


Napoléon Coste (1805-1883)
Grand Duo
1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Barcarolle
4. Finale. Allegro

Antoine de Lhoyer
Duo Concertant in A minor, op. 34, no. 3 (1768-1852)
5. Allegro moderato
6. Andante sostenuto
7. Rondo. Allegro

Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829)
Tre Polonesi Concertanti, op. 137
8. Polonese I. Allegretto
9. Polonese II. Allegretto
10. Polonese III. Allegretto

Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856)
Nänien. Trauerlieder
11. Am Grabe der Geliebten
12. Ich denke Dein
13. Trauermarsch

Mauro Giuliani
14. Grandes Variations Concertantes, op. 35
Introduzione. Andante sostenuto
Tema. Andantino grazioso
Var. I-VI

Liner notes
Following the release of Solaria, in March 2007, we began to toy with the idea of taking a step back in time, moving our focus onto the late Classical and Romantic era and identifying a group of works suitable for representing the great creative ferment which in the European capitals of the early nineteenth century – first of all, of course, Vienna and Paris – saw in the guitar duo a vehicle for the widespread diffusion of musical culture and a powerful means of expression. In this way, Noesis was born as a “twin” disc of Solaria, of which ideally it represents the continuation.

Exactly like Solaria, Noesis is first and foremost an invitation to listening and to re-discovery, by means of a varied programme of genres and composers. What do Giuliani and Coste, Mertz and Lhoyer have in common? Not their personal histories, nor their peculiarities of style, nor even the chronological details of birth and death. Something less and at the same time something much more than all this. Because they, together with a few others who for reasons of space are not represented in this anthology, are the names who have written some of the most significant pages of literature for two guitars of the nineteenth century: names known and celebrated in all the continent, and works that accompanied the now dominant European bourgeoisie as a soundtrack through decades of revolutions, restorations and epoch-making socio-economic changes.
Mauro Giuliani, who originated from the south-east of the Italian peninsula, moved to Vienna in 1806; in the fourteen years that he spent there, he gained extraordinary fame and success. His return to Italy in 1819, for reasons that still today are rather unclear, marked the beginning of his downward path as an artist, which would conclude with his death in poverty at the age of only 48 years. His Grandes Variations Concertantes, op. 35, published in Vienna in 1812, exemplify admirably the knowledge of the art of the variation: the perfect clockwork mechanism of a composer who at every concert and at every public performance renewed the myth of the virtuoso – and in so doing his own myth. A brief and ambiguous introduction, which moves between minor and major, raises the curtain on a theme, perhaps an original theme by Giuliani, without melodic or harmonic elements to make it interesting or, still less, identifiable. But it is just this dull “anonymity” that ensures that this theme lends itself magnificently to being the subject of transformations, diminutions and embellishments. The metamorphosis into six variations has quite a regular construction: in section a of each of the variations, the rhythmic unity between the two guitars is always perfect; while in section b, the construction is more theatrical, based on dialogue and opposition. Variations, by thirds, by quadruplets of semi-quavers, by sixths and by triplets, follow one another without ever affecting the fundamental harmonic structure of the theme – with the exception, to a lesser extent, of the fourth variation, which evokes some elements from the introduction (for example, the broken ascending octaves), and the spectacular final variation, constructed on the octave movement of the two guitars. A long coda based on the alternation of bravura interventions by the two guitars concludes, at the climax of a dizzying chromatic scale, on a double tremolo: here a minor second interval expands more and more until it liberates all its energy on the second inversion of a tonic chord followed by a perfect cadence. The steep descent of the arpeggio of the first guitar signals the end of a piece which constitutes an almost unparalleled example of all the technical and instrumental advances of the virtuoso guitarists of the era.
Simultaneous octaves similar to a fanfare introduce, with a strong dotted rhythm, the first of the Tre Polonesi Concertanti, published posthumously in Milan around 1836. A majestic character not devoid of irony, the strongly syncopated rhythm, the presence of a trio which is always cantabile, and the da capo: all give a notable underlying unity to three musical jewels which sparkle in the sober perfection of their writing, their formal clarity and their quality of melodic invention.
Not many years separate Giuliani and the guitarist and composer Antoine de Lhoyer, a native of Clermont-Ferrand: however, as far as we know, their personal and artistic paths never crossed. On the fall of Napoléon, after eventful years spent in various places in Europe, Lhoyer – a soldier by profession, first in the Gardes du Corps du Roi, then in several counter-revolutionary corps – returned to France, and took up service again in the army of the King. The stability for which he longed, however, was destined to remain a mirage: the new position forced the composer to move continuously from one remote French garrison to another, thus creating a situation of isolation and uncertainty that clearly must have constituted an obstacle to the development of his musical creativity.
Right from the octaves in unison which open the first movement, the Duo Concertant in A minor by Lhoyer appears charged with an extreme dramatic tension, which cannot be relaxed even in the C major – slightly brighter but marked rhythmically – of the second theme. A very intense orchestration and a perfect equilibrium in the subdivision of the parts are the unmistakeable trademark of all the composer’s important works for two guitars. The central movement is a tranquil romanza in C major consisting of slow and measured gestures, to which the strong dissonance of the opening appoggiature gives a vaguely eccentric character. The last reprise of the romanza dies on a brief and gloomy C pedal: nothing leads one to expect the stormy atmosphere of the final Rondo, in which, among surprising coups de théâtre, unexpected pauses and unpredictable melodic insertions, Lhoyer succeeds in obtaining an incredibly wide dynamic range through the use of broken sixths, eighths and tenths.
Napoléon Coste was a pupil of Fernando Sor; like Lhoyer, he was forced by economic circumstances to combine his musical activity with that of clerk, in spite of the reputation he enjoyed in Paris starting from the 1830s. His catalogue, the fruit of a long and peaceful life, includes about fifty numbered works, mostly for solo guitar (but there are also ventures into the chamber music field), and also a handful of works without opus numbers, among which this Grand Duo pour deux guitares égales et concertantes, one of the very few works for two guitars that can be attributed to him.
The only surviving manuscript of the Grand Duo, a non-autographic copy difficult to date, is preserved in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. The study of the manuscript has raised and continues to raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the text that has come down to us, since the distribution of the musical material between the two instruments, rather bizarre and sometimes almost illogical, would lead us to hypothesise corrections and modifications by an anonymous copier. The numerous doubts on the text, however, do not hide the substance of the piece, which displays an unusual richness of ideas right from the vigorous beginning of the first movement, an Allegro in which constant restlessness and a strong rhythmic mobility dominate the music until the recapitulation, which – after a literal revisiting of the initial minor key – abruptly changes towards a soft and cantabile E major. Lush and generous, the first movement of the Grand Duo is a tapestry of which the rhythmic and harmonic threads contribute to forming a melodic design of great beauty. The second movement is an Andante in C major, in two parts, with a barely described theme (more than anything else, a harmonic path subdivided between two guitars) and a long and thoughtful coda of 14 bars. A simple and graceful swaying theme in E minor opens the Barcarolle, followed by a central section in E major with a nobler and more stately progress. Crossed chromatic scales (the first guitar descends, while the second ascends) lead us back to the minor mode and to the very brief return of the theme, which precedes a coda in which, in the romantic feeling of some of the descending chord progressions, Coste achieved heights of sublime expressiveness, before concluding with a very brief final Allegro (little more than two minutes) which is fluent and vivid.
In 1856, Napoléon Coste gained the most important recognition of his career: the second prize in the Brussels guitar composition competition. Before him on the podium there had been a Bohemian guitarist who died only a few weeks before the proclamation, Johann Kaspar Mertz. This guitarist, whose biographical details substantially remain to be investigated, was born in Pressburg (present-day Bratislava) in 1806 and – like Giuliani many years before – found in Vienna, towards 1840, the ideal launching pad for his brief but successful career as a concert performer.
In the Trauerlieder Mertz, a composer who, sometimes lacking order and precision in his writing, is often criticised for his lack of sense of form, throws away all his prolix and mannered rhetoric, refines his style by removing certain ingenuities in rhythm and harmony which are frequent in many of his works (with a few, splendid, exceptions like the justly famous Bardenklänge) and adopts a style which is dignified but touching, with pathetic elements and romantic impulses set in a balanced formal framework. These three funeral songs, which envisage the use of a guitar tuned a minor third above (or of a normal guitar with a capotasto on the third fret), have been restored to us by a manuscript preserved in the Boije Collection of the Music Library of Sweden. Am Grabe der Geliebten, an Adagio with dark tones in C Minor, has a mournful and resigned progress interspersed with rays of luminous softness, as in the modulation in E flat major. Ich denke Dein is more serene and luminous, with its initial nostalgic statement based on a sequence of crotchets and minims. Like the other two Lieder, Ich denke Dein is divided into three very distinct sections, with a long central fluid, flowing episode and a literal revisiting of the first part. The conclusion is serene, but the appearance of the relative minor in the finale, after we have explored all the notes of the major triad, sows the seeds of doubt and uncertainty, leaving an ambiguous taste.
Trauermarsch, a mournful funeral march in D minor full of lights and shades, with a central parenthesis in a light D major which relieves us for a moment above the suffering, closes a triptych which takes its place among the most admirable pieces of all the romantic repertory for the guitar: pieces pierced by pain and rebellion, by an atmosphere of desperate renunciation and at the same time by a sort of indefinable Sehnsucht.
Noesis represents an act of homage and love towards these composers and their works: our viewpoint and our effort to understand the guitar repertory in that indistinctly-defined common territory in which classical forms and stylistic elements, and the restless urges of Romanticism, are able to communicate.
Lorenzo Micheli
October 2008