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"Out of Italy" - Sonatas for cello and basso continuo

Phoebe Carrai, Beiliang Zhu, cello; Charles Weaver, lute; Avi Stein, harpsichord

rec: Oct 26 - 30, 2017, Norfolk, Ct., Battell Chapel
AVIE - AV2394 (© 2019) (72'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giorgio ANTONIOTTO (?1680/92-?1766/76): Sonata in G, op. 1,8; Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805): Sonata in C (G 17); Giacobbe Basevi CERVETTO (c1682-1783): Divertimento in G, op. 4,1; Giovanni Battista CIRRI (1724-1808): Duetto in G, op. 8,3; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Sonata in F, op. 5,5; Salvatore LANZETTI (c1710-c1780): Sonata in a minor, op. 1,5; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata in B flat (RV 46)

Sources: Giovanni Battista Cirri, 8. duo pour deux violoncelles, op. 8, [n.d.]; Giorgio Antoniotto, XII Sonate, le prime cinque a violoncello solo e basso, e le altre sette a due violoncelli overo due viole da gamba, op. 1, c1735; Salvatore Lanzetti, XII sonate a Violoncello solo e Basso continuo, op. 1, 1736; Francesco Geminiani, Sonates pour le Violoncelle et Basse continue, op. 5, 1746; Giacobbe Basevi Cervetto, Six Lessons or Divertiments, op. 4, c1754

The title of this disc sums up the connection between the composers included in the programme. They were all born Italians, but left their country to look for employment elsewhere. Strictly speaking, Antonio Vivaldi is the exception: for most of his life he lived in Italy and made a career as a violinist and composer of operas. It was only at the very end of his life that he went to Vienna, where he died.

Reinhard Goebel, in his liner notes, admits that it is not entirely clear why so many Italians left their country. It seems that it was mainly the complete dominance of opera which diminished the chances of making a good career for instrumentalists. If we look at some of the names which come to mind, these were instrumentalists who in their capacity as composers mainly or even exclusively wrote instrumental music. That goes for someone like Francesco Geminiani, who also is included here.

Not a few settled in England, and especially in London, which in the first half of the 18th century developed into one of the main musical centres of Europe. It attracted performers and composers not only from Italy, but also from Germany, France and the Netherlands. However, the musical climate in England especially favoured Italian composers, as the country was under the spell of Italian music. The publication of Corelli's violin sonatas opus 5 caused quite a stir among music lovers, and soon all sorts of arrangements came from the press, for instance for recorder. Geminiani, a former pupil of Corelli, turned these sonatas into concerti grossi.

The programme is devoted to music for the cello. The instrument did exist in England since the second half of the 17th century, but was not used frequently. The Italian immigrants who settled in England after the turn of the century played a crucial role in making the instrument popular. Among them were Giovanni Bononcini, Giacobbe Basevi Cervetto and Andrea Caporale. The second of these is represented here.

The programme opens with the least-known composer, Giorgio Antoniotto, who was probably from Milan and at some time moved to the Netherlands. Around 1735 he published a collection of twelve sonatas as his opus 1 in Amsterdam; at that same time he moved to England. Interestingly, these sonatas are for cello or viola da gamba, which indicates that the cello had not completely overshadowed the 'old' viola da gamba yet, especially not among amateurs, for whom most chamber music was intended.

Next we hear a sonata by Cervetto, who was from a Jewish family and was probably born in Venice. Around 1738 he settled in London where he became a leading player of the cello. Although his playing was technically brilliant, his tone, according to Charles Burney, was "raw, crude and uninteresting". Cervetto's cello pieces are considered important contributions to the repertoire. Most of his oeuvre comprises music for his own instrument. The Divertimento in G is from a set of Six Lessons or Divertiments, printed around 1754. The two cellos are treated on equal footing, but not always at the same time. In some episodes one of them is taking the lead, and the other confines itself to the role of accompaniment, elsewhere it is the other way around.

Francesco Geminiani was one of the main Italian immigrants. In 1714 he left Italy for England, probably because he did not see any real chances of a career either in Rome or in Naples, where he spent some time. In England Geminiani found his first patron in Baron Johann Adolf Kielmannsegg. It was he who arranged a public performance in attendance of the king, in which Geminiani was accompanied by Handel at the harpsichord. During his years in England, Geminiani travelled quite a lot, and also visited France at several occasions. In Paris he published his six Sonates pour le Violoncelle et Basse continue, op. 5. This was certainly inspired by the fast growing popularity of the cello in France. Some sonatas include French elements, especially of music for the viola da gamba. These sonatas are pretty well known; it is nice that the players have included one of the less frequently played sonatas from this set.

Next are two composers who did not visit England. Vivaldi made a career in Venice, but had many international contacts. He composed a large number of concertos for the cello, but only nine cello sonatas. It is not known for whom he composed them. It seems likely that some of them were written at the request of Rudolf Franz Erwein of Schönborn-Wiesentheid, a German aristocrat, an avid player of the cello and collector of music for his instrument.

Unlike Geminiani and Vivaldi, Luigi Boccherini was a professional cellist. He also was one of the most brilliant players of his time, who contributed to the development of the cello playing technique. That comes to the fore in the Sonata in C, in which he explores the high register of the cello. It is played here on two cellos, but that does not indicate that it has been written as a duet. The second cello plays the basso continuo. That was common practice in the 18th century, but is seldom practised today. Boccherini was for most of his life in the service of Infante Don Luis Antonio, brother of King Charles III of Spain. His cello pieces are not intended for amateurs but for his own use, which explains why they are technically challenging.

With the last two composers we return to England. Salvatore Lanzetti was from Naples and received his musical education at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. In 1727 he entered the service of Vittorio Amedeo II in Turin. He held this post until his death, but had many opportunities to perform elsewhere. In the 1740s he lived in London, until at least 1754, and according to Charles Burney he played an important role in the popularization of the cello. The XII sonate a Violoncello solo e Basso continuo op. 1 are divided into three parts, each comprising four sonatas. The first series is intended for amateurs, and these sonatas are technically not that demanding. Moreover, here Lanzetti stays in the lower register and only uses the bass clef. The second part is more complicated; here Lanzetti makes use of bass and tenor clef. The four remaining sonatas are virtuosic, intended for professional players, and written in four different clefs. The Sonata in a minor is from the second series.

Giovanni Battista Cirri was from Forli, a town southeast of Bologna, and received the first music lessons from his brother Ignazio. His first position was that of composer and cellist of the San Petronio basilica in Bologna. In the 1760s he started to travel; he played at the Concert Spirituel in Paris and in 1764 he settled in London. He was employed as a chamber musician to the Duke of York whom he had met in Forli. When the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played in London, Cirri participated in the concerts as a soloist. He also performed in the Bach-Abel concerts. In 1780 he returned to Forli. He left a considerable oeuvre; part of it are duos for two cellos. The Duetto in G is from a set of eight, which have survived in manuscript as his Op. 8. It is not known whether they have been printed.

It brings to a close a very interesting disc which documents the growing popularity of the cello in the course of the 18th century across Europe, including England. It also shows the key role of Italians in this development. The dominant position of opera in Italy may have driven Italian instrumentalists abroad, but the rest of Europe took profit from that.

Most composers in the programme are anything but familiar to most music lovers. This disc should contribute to making them better known. Phoebe Carrai and Beiliang Zhu are ideal advocates of their instrument and of its music from the 18th century. They deliver technically brilliant and musically compelling performances, and receive excellent support from Charles Weaver and Avi Stein. The latter's harpsichord is sometimes a little overshadowed. The liner-notes should have included some information about the composers.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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Beiliang Zhu

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