“It’s clear that, as well as being a great cellist, [Bradbury] really understands operatic declamation, and that’s what makes the recording so very enjoyable.” – Professor Roger Parker, General Editor of the Critical Edition of the Operas of Donizetti on Vol. 1, Piatti Operatic Fantasies
On 1 July 2020 Meridian will release the second of two discs featuring Adrian Bradbury (cello) and Oliver Davies (piano) playing operatic fantasies – including several world premiere recordings – by the 19th century virtuoso cellist Alfredo Piatti (1822 – 1901). Playing from original manuscripts found in the Donizetti Library in Bergamo, Bradbury and Davies present the repertoire through which Piatti bewitched audiences across Europe with his technical wizardry and peerless cantabile tone.
Piatti, a native Italian, became England’s – especially Queen Victoria’s – favourite cellist. He partnered all the great European performers of the era (like Joachim, Mendelssohn, Grieg and Clara Schumann) and gave frequent concerto performances under conductors including Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Max Bruch. Many composers dedicated works to him, notably Sullivan, Verdi (solo in I masnadieri) and Mendelssohn (a concerto, sadly lost in transit).
His operatic fantasies were borne from his vast experience in opera houses from the age of eight, latterly as principal cello of the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden. He carefully annotated these fantasies with bel canto markings to imitate the performance practice of singers he accompanied – Jenny Lind, Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini and Michael Balfe – making this disc essential listening for cello lovers and opera lovers alike.
“Signor Piatti had obviously formed his cantabile playing on that of the singers of his own country”, Athenaeum, 1844
These discs were conceived back in 2011 when the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the London Cello Society approached Adrian and Oliver to give a concert celebrating Piatti, a longtime RAM Professor. As Adrian and Oliver explored concert programmes and newspaper reviews from the 1840’s, it became clear that the items most delighting those audiences were Piatti’s own virtuosic display pieces – his Fantasies on operatic arias of the day. One of the Fantasies earning the young Piatti such acclaim – on Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda – lay unpublished, existing only as fragments of manuscript in the Piatti archive in Bergamo. Adrian and Oliver’s reconstruction of it for this concert began a ten-year love affair with the repertoire culminating in these recordings.
“the cellist Piatti, performed his Variazioni with tenderness, charm and marvellous grace. It was the sweetest singing we have ever heard.”(St Petersburg Bulletin, 1845).
As further Fantasies were unearthed, Churchill College Cambridge awarded Adrian and Oliver By-Fellowships enabling them to research and celebrate the scores, continued in close collaboration with the Piatti archive in Biblioteca musicale Gaetano Donizetti, Bergamo. The works existed variously in Piatti’s own hand – full manuscript scores (for cello and orchestra, and/or cello and piano) and orchestral parts – together with some 19th-century published editions for cello and piano. Adrian says “I spent the year constantly emailing the wonderful Annalisa [Barzanò, Piatti scholar in Bergamo] asking for manuscripts, annotated first editions, or a magnification of some tiny cadenza scribbled in the margin, and hey presto they would always appear in Dropbox a day later, usually with a lovely update on the weather and birdlife in Bergamo!”
After finally realising the complete set of twelve Operatic Fantasies in 2016, concert performances across the UK and Italy ensued, with Adrian and Oliver twice appearing at the international Alfredo Piatti Festival in Bergamo – whereupon they spotted the life-sized portrait of Piatti by Frank Holl hanging in the concert hall, an important painting considered long lost by English art historians!
As a genre, the operatic fantasy enjoyed – just like gaslight – a brightly-burning but short-lived era in Victorian England. In an age before radio, cinema, television and the gramophone the opera house, with its star singers playing out the musical drama of the day, was the hottest ticket in town. Opera was so popular that music halls included operatic arias and choruses in their variety bills, fitting seamlessly in between circus acts and displays of the latest industrial inventions. All social classes were able to join choirs, bands and orchestras bringing the same repertoire to life, and no-one could avoid the hurdy gurdies and barrel organs pumping operatic highlights into the open street air. The latest opera melodies were Top of the Pops, and one of the best ways for visiting instrumental artists – like Piatti – to ingratiate themselves with their musical public was to elaborate on them with dazzling shows of virtuosity.
Piatti won immediate success with them from 1844-6, touring London, St Petersburg, Vienna, Budapest, Munich, Dresden, Warsaw…and Paris, where Liszt, himself a prolific composer of operatic fantasies, gifted him a 5,000 franc Amati cello by way of congratulations.
As bel canto opera went out of fashion, so did the operatic fantasies celebrating its melodies. Today, thanks to the bel canto revival begun by artists such as Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge and continuing with companies like Opera Rara, operatic fantasies are enjoying a renaissance.
Adrian adds: “This project may have begun life as a musicological discovery, but the repertoire itself has turned out to be so joyful and nourishing that it’s taken on a life of its own – concert audiences love them! We are now working to publish the complete set of scores in time for the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2022. Piatti’s Twelve Caprices op 65 are already amongst the most important studies in the cello literature. I am confident that these Twelve Fantasies will soon join them as works deemed essential for every cellist’s musical and technical development.”
Adrian and Oliver playing Piatti on YouTube:
Introduction et variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor, Op.2
Souvenir de la Sonnambula, Op.5