A performer and teacher who enriched the cello repertoire with many publications of the old classical sonatas in his own editions, Alfredo Carlo Piatti stands out prominently among the 19th century Italian cellists.
Alfredo Piatti was born on January 8, 1822 in Borgo Canale near Bergamo. His father was a violinist. As a lad he began to study the cello with his great-uncle Gaetano Zanetti, and continued his musical education at the Milan conservatoire (1832-1837) under Vincenzo Merighi (1795-1849). In 1834, Piatti had already made his debut as a soloist in a concert featuring the singer Maria Malibran.
In 1836, he performed at La Scala in Milan and then he began his concert career in different cities of Europe. In 1843, Piatti appeared in Munich with Liszt, who had an extremely high opinion of the Italian cellist. The Paris concerts took place in 1844 and it was Liszt who helped organize them. There he presented Piatti with an Amati cello. That same year, Piati made his first appearance in London.
In the spring of 1845, Piatti came to Russia with the famous pianist Theodor Dohler . Concerts featuring the two musicians were tremendously successful in St. Petersburg and Moscow, with Piatti playing his own compositions: the Fantasia on the Themes from the Opera La Somnambula by Bellini, the Fantasia on Russian Themes, and the Fantasia on Bashkirian Themes.
One of the St.Petersburg reviews lavished praise on the gifted Italian violoncellist, "who had delighted the audience by his art and excellent taste." Another critic praised "his developed technique, sonority, pleasant tone, rare purity, refined taste, abundance of feeling and expression, and the most charming singing which one can hear on this primarily singing instrument."
In a letter from St. Petersburg to Moscow of April 10, 1845, Matwey Wialgohorsky recommended Alfredo Piatti to Alexander Verstovsky and wrote about the purity and tenderness of the cellist's enchanting playing. Piatti dedicated his Fantasia on an Original Theme to Matwey Wialgohorsky. As for Piatti's other Russian contacts, Anton Rubinstein dedicated his First Violon-Concerto (A Minor) to him in 1864.
In 1846, Piatti made a triumphant appearance in London and soon was considered the best violoncellist there. For three years he was principal cellist in the Italian opera orchestra, and for several years after, he appeared in the British capital as a soloist and chamber musician. Piatti constantly took part in London's "Popular Concerts."
He was long a member of the quartet with Josef Joachim, Louis Ries and Ludwig Strauss. Piatti also played in a quartet in which Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was first violin, Josef Joachim second, and Henryk Wieniawski the violist. The quartet performed in the concerts of the London Beethoven Quartet Society. Bernard Shaw often spoke in high terms about Piatti; he heard him once in an ensemble with Johannes Brahms.
The German cellists Robert Haussmann and Hugo Becker, William Whitehouse and Leo Stern of Britain, and many others, studied and improved their playing with Piatti.
Although he lived mainly in England, the artist often travelled in other countries. In 1858 he appeared with huge success in Vienna. Eduard Hanslick's delightful review gives a clear idea of his performing style: "His playing... is as developed from the standpoint of virtuosity as it is distinguished in performance and comprehension of style... Virtuosity has never been an impediment with Piatti when simply a cantilena should be performed. Having felt it sincerely and deeply, such as when playing Schubert's Litania, he was always opposed to the unpleasant sugary style, so common with the violoncello. Drawing the bow as elegantly and easily as a violinist, Piatti never distorted the true character of the instrument, which remains serious and virile with all its heartfelt feeling." Speaking about the musician's "truly artistic tendency," combining Italian freshness of sentiment and profound German seriousness, Hanslick was not overly enthusiastic about Piatti's gift as a composer, although he did not deny the cellist's good taste.
From time to time, Piatti played in concerts in his native Italy and was on friendly terms with many Italian musicians. Thus, many of his friends were present at the Milan concert (1892) dedicated to his 70th birthday, among them Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito.
In 1898 the cellist discontinued both his concert and teaching activities, and settled in Italy. He died at the villa Crocetto di Mozzo near Bergamo on July 18, 1901.
The foregoing quotation from Hanslick's review presents a full impression of Piatti's performing style. Beautifully expressive sound and perfect technique matched deep and profound performance. Piatti was equally well removed from superficial ostentation and the sentimental sugary affect (Hanslick mentioned very moderate use of vibrato); in this sense he opposed the then numerous drawing-room virtuosos. At the same time, he seemed to lack emotion and zest, which once provoked Davydov to make a witty remark: "Piatti is a great musician, but he is not a true Italian."
A special observation is that the cellist played without the spike, and judging from the pictures preserved, he kept to the low elbow school.
Piatti's merit was that he tried to enrich the cello repertoire with artistic and serious works which could replace the salon and simply virtuoso music that was so often played at the concerts of his day. He was the first to publish old 18th century works, including sonatas by Locatelli, Porpora, Valentini, Veracini, Ariosti, Marcello and Boccherini. Additionally, he compiled an edition for violoncello and piano of the First Suite for Cello Solo by J.S. Bach, violoncello transcriptions of the Gamba Variations by Simpson (" 13 Divisions") and of the Third Violin Sonata by Haydn. He also arranged works by romantic composers for cello and piano, among them Mendelssohn's Song Without Words and Hungarian Dances by Brahms.
Piatti's editions of old music reflect his aspiration to preserve the original text. In publications he only rarely resorted to the performing edition usually involving numerous marking of bowing, fingering, etc. (for example in Grutzmacher's editions). One has to credit his sense of style and correctness when composing the piano part, based on the deciphered figured bass, for example, in Boccherini's sonatas.
As for his own compositions -over thirty of them-Piatti paid tribute to his epoch, writing several fantasias (variations) on operatic themes from Bellini Somnambula, Puritani, Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Piccini Niobea as well as on folk song themes (Russian, Bashkirian, Swedish, etc.). He also wrote a concertino (1863), two concertos (1872 and 1877) and several other pieces. Among these are an Italian serenade, nocturne, bergamasca, siciliano and tarantella. None of these works have retained their value, though at the beginning of the century they were used by teachers such as Hugo Becker. In teaching, however, both concertos might have been used. At the end of his life, Piatti turned to the chamber sonata genre and wrote four sonatas for cello and piano Op. 28, 29, 30 and 31, but they did not remain long in the repertoire.
The virtuoso cello techniques found in Piatti's works are of special historical interest, as they provide further evidence of his great performing mastery. In the fantasia genre popular at the time, his technique was much like that of Servais.
Rich passage technique in legato and staccato, wide and various use of double stops including tenths, chords and arpeggios, developed stroke technique, gracious and 'bouncing" in particular (spiccato, flying spiccato in arpeggios, etc.), different kinds of harmonic techniques (natural and artificial harmonics), a "chain" of trills, brilliant chromatic passages, and "self-accompaniment" technique -all serve to characterize Piatti as a representative of the virtuoso romantic trend. In the second period of his creative activity, marked by his composition of concertos and sonatas, the technique of the instrument did not play so self-dominating a role, though virtuoso character was also featured. This is seen in examples from the Second Concerto (D Minor) with double stops and "self-accompaniment":
Today's teachers still extensively use Piatti's Twelve Capriccos Op. 25, composed in 1875, and dedicated to his friend Bernhard Cossmann. Written for cello solo, they are accomplished pieces and harmoniously combine good musical qualities and technique.
The chorale introducing Caprice No. 2 is extremely expressive. Caprice No. 3 provides an example of mobile double stop technique in the thumb position. Caprice No. 1 is classical (bariolage at the point of the bow ponticello). The "self-accompaniment" device with the required emphasis on the upper melodic voice in the Caprice No. 2 and the similar device employing the "jumping" stroke in the Caprice No. 5 deserve special notice. Spiccato and staccato strokes are also frequently used (Caprices No. 5, 9, 10, 12). Polyphonic devices appear in Caprice No. 6.
The artificial harmonics in combination with the gracious stroke in Caprice No. 12 are of interest as well.
The caprices have come down to us in a new edition by Piatti's pupil William Whitehouse, who added brief methodic comments.
After Piatti's death, Whitehouse and another English cellist, R.B. Tabb, edited Piatti's Violoncello Method (Mainz. 1911), which was compiled of the teaching compositions of Duport, Romberg, Dotzauer, Lee and other authors, with concise but very useful methodic notes.
Alfredo Piatti's significance as one of the last representatives of the romantic style in the history of the violoncello lies in his performing achievements, highlighted by artistic taste and virtuoso technique, his editions of 18th-century classical violoncello music, as well as his teaching compositions -mainly caprices for the cello solo.
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