musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Rocco GRECO (c1650-1718): "Music for Bass Violin"

Mvsica Perdvta
David Maria Gentile, Federico Marcucci, chanta
Dir: Renato Criscuolo

rec: Oct & Nov 2019, Rome, Oratorio dei padri Barnabiti
Brilliant Classics - 96100 (© 2021) (67'52")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Domus meaa; Loquebantura; Sinfonia I; Sinfonia II; Sinfonia III; Sinfonia III (transcription for violin and bass); Sinfonia IV; Sinfonia V; Sinfonia XIV; Sinfonia XVI; Sinfonia XIX; Sinfonia XX; Sinfonia XXI; Sinfonia XXVI; Sinfonia XXVIII; [4 pieces without title] for violin and bc

Vincenzo Bianco, violin; Renato Criscuolo, Andrea Lattarulo, bas violin; Andrea Benucci, theorbo, guitar; Alberto Bagnai, harpsichord, organ

The cello probably has the most complicated history of any instrument. The problems start with the confusion about the many different words used in 17th-century Italy to describe string bass instruments. The word (violon)cello which is commonly used today, appears for the first time in a collection of sonatas with a part for cello obbligato, that Giulio Cesare Arresti published in 1665 as his op. 4. However, that does not mean that he referred to the same instrument known today as cello - or, more precise, what today is called the 'baroque cello'. In the 17th century the main string bass was the 'bass violin', often called violone and known in France as the basse de violon. In 2015 Urania Records released a disc on which Renato Criscuolo explores the repertoire for bass violin written at the end of the 17th century in Italy. It was the time that the cello started to replace the bass violin and was to become the main string bass instrument in the 18th century.

Various words were used for the same kind of instruments; these could differ from one region to the other. At the same time, a particular term did not always refer to the same instrument. There is also not such a thing as the bass violin. Criscuolo plays a reconstruction of a large instrument, but the bass violin also existed in smaller versions. It could have either four (like Criscuolo's) or five strings. And to make things even more complicated: string basses could be played da gamba - like the viola da gamba and the modern cello - or da spalla, like the violin. From that perspective it is virtually impossible to say what is the 'correct' instrument for the repertoire of the late 17th century.

The present disc can be considered a sequel to the disc I just referred to. Criscuolo here focuses on the output of one composer, who was from Naples and has remained unknown, in contrast to his brother Gaetano. The latter has an entry in New Grove, where Greco is only mentioned as the a violin teacher at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesł Cristo from 1677 to 1695 and the composer of 28 duets for two cellos. Those are the main subject of this disc, but as Criscuolo explains in his liner-notes, these duets are not for cellos, but for bass violins. The title of the collection is Sinfonie ą due viole. The word viola was used for the bass violin by other composers as well. Criscuolo states that it is very unlikely that this term indicates the viola da gamba, as this instrument had virtually disappeared from southern Italy in the mid-17th century. The collection from which the pieces on this disc are taken, dates from 1699.

Criscuolo believes that the instrument intended by Greco would probably not have been fitted with frets and the bow would almost always have been held in the underhand grip. He refers here to a treatise by the cellist Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819), who states that the overhand grip was adopted for the cello because of the great number of violinists who adopted the instrument and did not want to change their right-hand technique. It was only after 1714 that Greco switched from the bass violin to the cello.

There can be no doubt that Greco was a true virtuoso on his instrument, as some of the duets show. In this programme, in particular the Sinfonia II and the Sinfonia terza are examples of his technical skills. In these pieces the second bass violin part is reduced to the role of basso continuo, and for that reason this part is performed at the harpsichord. In the other sinfonias, the two instruments are treated more or less on equal footing, lending them the character of bicinia. Some parts include numerical indications, suggesting the participation of a chordal instrument. The first four sinfonias consist of three movements, the others have just two. Many movements have no tempo indications, but in those sinfonias in which the movements come with such indications, they are usually of a contrasting nature, for instance a grave, followed by an allegro (Sinfonia XIV).

In addition to the sinfonias, we get three different kinds of pieces. The most surprising are probably the two with Latin titles, which refer to plainchant. Here we have examples of a diminution practice, apparently adopted by players who played the basso continuo in church, alongside the organ. In this recording the chant is sung by two singers, and this is followed by the diminutions, in which the bass violin is accompanied by the organ. Four pieces without titles are played on the violin. It is not indicated for which instrument they are intended, but considering that Greco was a violin teacher, the choice of this instrument seems entirely plausible. Lastly, the programme ends with another performance of the Sinfonia III, this time in a transcription for violin and basso continuo. This piece seems to date from the early 19th century, which suggests that Greco's music was still known long after his death.

The two players of the bass violin, Renato Criscuolo and Andrea Lattarulo, play modern copies of two historical instruments of similar size, with four strings tuned G-C-F- Bflat. The pitch is a=415Hz, the common pitch in Naples until the end of the 17th century. As one can see, it is hardly possible to be more 'authentic' in the interpretation of these pieces by Greco. This disc offers a unique opportunity to hear the bass violin as a solo instrument, whereas in other recordings it is almost exclusively used in the basso continuo. Its sound is clearly different from that of a cello, and that justifies the performance of these pieces on the instrument for which they were intended. Criscuolo and Lattarulo show a full command of their instruments, and as these pieces are not merely demonstrations of playing technique, but musically valuable, the listener is in for a compelling programme of music he certainly has never heard before. There are some fine contributions by other members of the ensemble: Andrea Benucci (theorbo, guitar) and Alberto Bagnai (harpsichord and organ), and of course by the violinist Vincenzo Bianco, who also played a substantial role in the development of this programme.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Mvsica Perdvta

CD Reviews