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Italian cello sonatas

[I] "Porta Magna - Cello Sonatas"
Ensemble Cordia
rec: June 19 - 21, 2016, Brixen (A), Priesterseminar (church)
Brilliant Classics - 95802 (© 2019) (57'38")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Domenico GABRIELLI (1659-1690): Sonata in G; Sonata in A; Giuseppe Maria JACCHINI (1667-1727): Sonata in B flat, op. 1,7 [1]; Sonata in a minor, op. 1,8 [1]; Sonata in G, op. 3,9 [2]; Sonata in C, op. 3,10 [2]; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Sonata No. 1 in D; Sonata No. 2 in C; Sonata No. 3 in C

Stefano Veggetti, cello; Riccardo Coelati Rama, violone; Maurizio Piantelli, theorbo, guitar; Takashi Watanabe, harpsichord

[II] "Venetian Cello Sonatas - Under the Shade of Vivaldi"
Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Sara Bennici, cello [bc]; Evangelina Mascardi, theorbo; Anna Fontana, harpsichord
rec: Sept 19 - 22, 2018, Lengmoos-Klobenstein (Bz, I), Vereinshaus Peter Mayr Saal
Arcana - A465 (© 2019) (77'24")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Girolamo BASSANI (?-c1740): Sonata III in a minor; Domenico BIGAGLIA (1676-1745): Sonata in G; Benedetto MARCELLO (1686-1739): Sonata VI in G, op. 1,6 [3]; Antonio MARTINELLI (1704-1782): Sonata in D; Giovanni Benedetto PLATTI (1697-1763): Sonata I in g minor (WD 698/1); Michele STRATICO (1728-c1787): Sonata in A; Antonio VANDINI (1690-1778): Sonata in a minor; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata in B flat (RV 46)

Sources: [1] Giuseppe Maria Jacchini, Sonate à Violino e Violoncello, et à Violoncello solo Per Camera, op. 1, n.d.; [2] Concerti per camera à Violino e Violoncello solo, e nel fine due Sonate à Violoncello solo col Basso, op. 3, 1697; [3] Benedetto Marcello, 6 Sonata à Violoncello Solo, op. 1, 1732

The cello is one of the main instruments in classical music. Its origins are in the 17th century, but it was after the turn of the century that it started to be played by amateurs, which stimulated composers to write sonatas for it. In recent years quite a number of discs with music for the cello have been released which explore lesser-known repertoire. That also goes for the two discs under review here.

The first is a tale of three cities. The first of these is Bologna, which was a centre of cello playing and composing for the cello in the last decades of the 17th century. Here two of the pioneers of the instruments lived and worked: Domenico Gabrielli and his pupil Giuseppe Maria Jacchini. Gabrielli was a pupil of Petronio Franceschini, whom he succeeded as cellist in the basilica San Petronio after his teacher's death in 1680. Although he composed vocal music, he has become almost exclusively known for his role in the development of the cello. His oeuvre for his instrument is very small: seven Ricercares for cello solo, a canon for two cellos and the two sonatas for cello and basso continuo included here. They both comprise four movements. In 1689 he was succeeded as cellist at San Petronio by his pupil Jacchini. The year before the latter had been accepted as a member of the Accademia Filarmonica. As a composer he only wrote instrumental works for various scorings, but often with obbligato parts for the cello. He was adept at accompanying singers and that could well be reflected in his sonatas which have a remarkable cantabile character. That comes especially to the fore in the slow movements. Here we hear four sonatas from his op. 1 and op. 3. The former collection includes also sonatas for violin and cello, whereas the op. 3 was published under the title of Concerti da camera.

The popularity of the cello soon spread across Italy. The two other cities represented here are Rome and Naples. One of the main cellists of the late 17th century was Giovanni Bononcini, who was from Modena, but worked in Rome from 1691 to 1697. However, he is not included here. Instead, we get three sonatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, a man of two cities, as he worked for most of his life either in Naples or in Rome. Instrumental music takes only a minor place in his oeuvre; the three sonatas included here are all that he wrote for the cello. They are kept in the library of the Conservatoire in Milan. As they cannot be dated, it is impossible to say whether they have been written in Naples or in Rome. In the liner-notes, it is suggested that they were written for one of several cello virtuosos who were active at the Royal Chapel in Naples. They are all in four movements.

Stefano Veggetti and his colleagues deliver very lively performances, and especially the rhythmic pulse is given much emphasis. Probably a bit too much; sometimes the performances, and in particular the accompaniment, have an almost percussionistic character. The performers have taken quite some liberties anyway, for instance in the closing movements of most sonatas. There, theorbo and harpsichord sometimes get a short solo episode to play, which undoubtedly has not been prescribed by the composers. I have my doubts about the historical foundation of this practice, which unfortunately is not discussed in the liner-notes. On the other hand, I like the strong differences in tempo between the slow and the fast movements. The latter are mostly played at high speed, whereas the slower movements are performed with the right amount of pathos. I wonder why a German harpsichord was used for the basso continuo. I would have liked the recording to have taken place in a more suitable venue than the church in Brixen, which has too much reverberation.

I already mentioned that the playing of the cello disseminated across Italy. That is documented by the second disc, which is devoted to Venice, although not all sonatas included in the programme were written there. Whereas the pioneers of the cello wrote their music for their own use in the first place and very likely also as pedagogical material, later composers had skilled amateurs in mind, when they wrote and published their sonatas. Interestingly, the latest pieces in the programme are technically too challenging for amateurs, and were probably written for professional players instead.

The programme opens with the Sonata III in a minor by Girolamo Bassani. The name Bassani (or Bassano) is pretty well known, but Girolamo is a rather unknown quantity, who even has no entry in New Grove. The sonata recorded here is one of a set of six which are part of the library of Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn, a German cello aficionado, who collected large amounts of compositions for his instrument. In 1722 Bassani joined the Count's musical establishment. Among his colleagues was Giovanni Benedetto Platti, who worked for most of his life in Würzburg, at the court of the Prince's brother, but also composed much music for the Count himself. The most notable movement of his Sonata in g minor is the second, with the tempo indication non presto, which has strongly dramatic traces.

Benedetto Marcello was an early advocate of a 'natural' style, as he criticised the extravagances of his own time, for instance in his satirical writing Il teatro alla moda. It can hardly surprise that in his Sonata in G he avoids technical pirouettes. It is an elegant and largely lyrical piece in four movements. The same can be said of the Sonata in G by Domenico Bigaglia, a Benedictine monk, who composed almost exclusively vocal music. This sonata is his only piece for the cello; the four movements come without tempo indications, and are performed here in the conventional order slow - fast - slow - fast (two largos and two allegros).

Antonio Vivaldi didn't bother to publish his cello sonatas. Six sonatas were published in Paris by Charles-Nicolas Le Clerc in the late 1730s. It is likely this happened without Vivaldi's knowledge. The publisher tried to exploit the popularity of the cello in France at the time, and simply put together six sonatas which were circulating in manuscript. This seems even more likely because of the fact that no less than three sonatas are in the same key - B flat -, something composers tried to avoid. Some sonatas may originally have been written for the pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà, others were the result of commissions by dilettantes, mostly aristocrats. The Sonata in B flat (RV 46) is part of the library of Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn and may have been written for him. Considering its technical challenges, it attests to the skills of the Count.

Marcello, Vivaldi and Platti are the only household names in the programme. Bigaglia is little-known, Bassani almost entirely unknown, and the remaining composers also won't ring a bell to most music lovers. Antonio Martinelli is again someone not mentioned in New Grove. He was active as a teacher at three Venetian ospedali, among them the Ospedale della Pietà. The Sonata in D is written in the galant idiom, in which counterpoint plays almost no role. Antonio Vandini, born in Bologna, also acted for a short period of time as a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà. Before that he had been in Padua, where he was in close contact with Giuseppe Tartini. After a short sojourn in Venice, he returned to Padua, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He was a professional cellist, and his Sonata in a minor is not suited to amateurs. It is in three movements, in the order slow - fast - fast, which was common in the mid-18th century. That is also the case with the Sonata in A by Michelo Stratico, who was born in present-day Croatia into a Venetian family. He worked as a lawyer and was an amateur violinist. However, the technical features of his sonata are such that it is also beyond the reach of amateurs.

Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes, makes an interesting observation with regard to the last movements of these two sonatas. The closing allegro assai of Vandini's sonata consists of only eight bars. "Is this miniature movement a deliberate anticlimax with humorous intent? It could be - but another possibility is that Vandini provided only the theme for a short series of variations that the performer would then be expected to improvise or compose." That suggestion could be supported by Stratico's sonata, which closes with a minuetto con variazioni, "a species of finale widely cultivated from the 1720s onwards and exactly the kind of movement that Vandini may (arguably) have envisaged." Could this be the reason that Stefano Veggetti decided to add variations to the closing movements of two sonatas in his programme? It would be very interesting to know more about this aspect of performance practice.

I won't compare the two performances. These recordings cover different stages in the history of the cello, and therefore may require different ways of playing. Gaetano Nasillo's approach is more restrained, but has a strong intensity. His performances of the fast movements are energetic, but he avoids the sometimes almost aggressive style of Veggetti. The slow movements are expressive and contain lyricism where it is needed. He receives excellent support from cello, theorbo and harpsichord.

Considering the repertoire, which is partly little known, both these discs are well worth the attention of all lovers of the cello.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Cordia
Gaetano Nasillo

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