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Chamber Music for Cello

[I] Antonio CALDARA (1670 - 1736): Sonate à violoncello solo, col basso continuo 1735
Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Sara Bennici, cello [bc]; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichorda, fortepianob

rec: April 22 - 24, 2009, Ghiffa (Verbania), Chiesa della SS. Trinità
Arcana - A 356 (© 2010) (69'32")
Liner-notes: E/F/D/I

[II] Carlo GRAZIANI (? - 1787): "In viaggio verso Breslavia - Sonate a violoncello solo e basso"
Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Sara Bennici, cello [bc]; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord

rec: Sept 16 - 19, 2010, Miasino (Novara), Chiesa parocchiale di S. Rocco
Arcana - A 362 (© 2011) (77'17")
Liner-notes: E/F/D/I

[III] "Baroque Cello Illuminations"
Angela East, cello; Ruth Alford, cello [bc]; Howard Beach, harpsichord

rec: May 2001, Saint-Irénée, Domaine le Forget (François-Bernier concert hall)c; May 17 - 19, 2008, Loughton (Essex), St John's Churchd
Red Priest - RP005 (© 2009) (73'42")
Liner-notes: E

[I] Sonata IV in d minorb; Sonata VIII in E flatb; Sonata IX in Ga; Sonata XI in g minorb; Sonata XII in d minora; Sonata XIV in a minora; Sonata XV in Ab; Sonata XVI in Ga

[II] Capriccio for cello in C; Sonata for cello and bc in D; Sonata for cello and bc in A "Il viaggio da Berlino a Breslavia con l'affettuosa ricevuta di S.A.R."; Sonata for cello and bc in e minor, op. 2,3 [3]; Sonata for cello and bc in G, op. 3,1 [4]; Sonata for cello and bc in A, op. 3,2 [4]; Sonata for cello and bc in D, op. 3,5 [4]

[III] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Suite for cello No 1 in G (BWV 1007)c; François COUPERIN (1668-1733), arr Paul Bazelaire, Angela East: Nouveau Concert No 6 in B flat: air de diable [1]d; Nouveau Concert No 7 in g minor: siciliène [1]d; Nouveau Concert No 10 in a minor: La Tromba; Plainte [1]d; Nouveau Concert No 14 in d minor: prélude [1]d; Henry ECCLES jr (1675/85-1735/45): Sonata for cello and bc No 11 in g minor, arr for violin and bcd; Willem de FESCH (1687-1757?): Sonata for cello and bc in d minor, op. 8,3d [2]; ?Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750) and/or Martin BERTEAU (1700-1771): Sonata for cello and bc in G, op. 1a,3d; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata for cello and bc in e minor (RV 40)d

Sources: [1] François Couperin, Les goûts-réünis, ou Nouveaux concerts, 1724; [2] Willem de Fesch, XII sonatas, op. 8, 1733; Carlo Graziani, [3] 6 Sonates, op. 2, c1760; [4] 6 Sonates, op. 3, [n.d.]

Every music lover can name some of the most important patrons of the arts in history. One can think of the members of the Gonzaga family, the Barberini's, Cardinal Ottoboni or the emperors of the Habsburg dynasty. We owe them many great compositions as they attracted some of the best composers of their time. Some patrons are less well-known, though, despite them having a considerable influence on the creation of some fine music. One of them has come to the fore fairly recently: the German count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid. He was an avid music lover and an accomplished cellist. We owe him a number of sonatas and concertos for his instrument. He was particularly close to the Italian composer Giovanni Benedetto Platti (c1697-1763), who was at the service of his brother, the prince-archbishop Lothar Franz von Schönborn. Recently Platti's oeuvre has been given much attention - a number of recordings have been reviewed here. Because of that the important role of the count has come to attention.

It seems likely that Rudolf Franz Erwein was also responsible for the composition of the sixteen Sonate à violoncello solo, col basso continuo by Antonio Caldara. These are part of the 80 cello sonatas which are in the collection of the count, and which are still preserved at the Wiesentheid residence in Germany. They have been written in 1735, and only a year before the count had visited Vienna, where Caldara worked as vice-Kapellmeister and court composer at the imperial court. There are strong indications that several other composers wrote music at the count's request, and it seems very likely Caldara's sonatas were also the result of his commission. The sonatas were written from May to July 1735; Caldara noted down the date of composition on every single sonata.

The very fact that Caldara composed these sonatas seems to confirm Rudolf Franz Erwein's commission, because the largest part of his oevre consisted of vocal music. Composing operas and oratorios was his main duty in Vienna, and the largest part of his instrumental music consists of trio sonatas which date from early in his career. So why would he suddenly return to composing instrumental music? It is not surprising, though, that the count turned to Caldara for some additions to his private collection of cello sonatas. Caldara was one of the most celebrated composers of his time, and he had originally been educated as a cellist. When his trio sonatas opus 1 were printed in 1693 in Venice he presented himself as Musico di violoncello. And in his vocal works he regularly gave the cello obbligato parts. The idiomatic character and the high quality of these parts have their counterpart in the sixteen sonatas of 1735.

Caldara mostly follows the model of the sonata da chiesa, although he sometimes breaks with tradition. All but one of the sonatas are in four movements; the Sonata IV in d minor has three. In most sonatas the four movements follow the traditional pattern slow-fast-slow-fast. But the Sonata IX in G and the Sonata XII in d minor have three fast movements; the only slow movement is in second or third place respectively. The Sonata XIV in a minor and the Sonata XV in A both have a third movement which is called 'aria'. The eight sonatas on this disc show a considerable amount of variety, both in formal respect as in regard to content. That in itself makes for good listening, but the performers contribute to this disc being compelling and musically highly entertaining. Gaetano Nasillo is an excellent cellist who impresses with his mastering of the considerable technical requirements of these sonatas but also his exploration of their character. I hope he may one day record the remaining sonatas. Interesting is the use of a fortepiano in the basso continuo in four of the sonatas. It is a copy of an instrument of Cristofori of 1726. One wonders whether Caldara knew Cristofori's gravicembalo col piano e forte as it was called. In his notes in the booklet Luca Guglielmi mentions various composers who knew and sometimes played the instrument. Caldara is not one of them, but interestingly he mentions Platti who played the instrument in 1720 in Siena. He suggests he could have taken such an instrument with him to Germany. But this seems speculation, and the question whether Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid knew the instrument or even owed one himself is probably impossible to answer. In my experience the harpsichord works much better in the continuo than the fortepiano. This aspect seems the only question mark in regard to this recording which I strongly recommend to any music lover.

The 18th century was the age of education which was part of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Encyclopedias and treatises on various subjects were printed. Composers also took part in this educational process, as they were writing music for the growing market of musical amateurs. Georg Philipp Telemann is a good example of a composer who wanted to offer music which was technically not too demanding, but at the same time explored the considerable skills of many amateurs. Carlo Graziani published three sets of cello sonatas which were also directed towards the more than average amateur, and for his opus 3 he had a specific pupil in mind.

Next to nothing is known about Graziani's early years: he was born in Asti sometime during the first half of the 18th century. We don't know who his first teacher was or what his first position as a musician may have been. He was one of several Italian musicians who settled in Paris. He joined the orchestra of the tax-farmer Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinière, who is best known as patron of Jean-Philippe Rameau. This was a prestigious position as this orchestra was considered the best in Paris. After La Pouplinière's death in 1762 he entered the service of Baron de Bagge, and several years later he moved to London where he became the principal cellist in the orchestra of the Haymarket Theatre. In 1770 he moved to Germany, where he gave several concerts. Soon he was invited to become the cello teacher of Friedrich Wilhelm II, Crown Prince of Prussia, in Potsdam. It is with this pupil in mind that Graziani composed his opus 3. After his retirement he choose to stay close to the prince, and he followed him to Berlin when he was crowned king in 1786. Only one year later he died.

Graziani left three collections of cello sonatas which were printed as opus 1 to 3, and 18 sonatas which have remained in manuscript. Stylistically they reflect the galant idiom which was so much in vogue in the mid-18th century. This disc offers specimen from opus 2 and opus 3 as well as some unpublished pieces. The opus 2 was probably composed during Graziani's stay in England, and is directed towards the amateur cellist. Graziani took the different levels of amateur players into account in that the first four sonatas are technically less demanding than the fifth and sixth. The Sonata in e minor, op. 2,3belongs to the first group and consists of three movements, the last of which is a rondeau - a popular form of the time.

The opus 3 also consists of six sonatas, and although this collection was directed towards a wider audience than Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the sonatas were first and foremost written to please his royal pupil. They show various technical aspects of cello playing. That is the case, for instance, in the closing movements of several sonatas which take the form of a theme with variations. The various variations are excellently suited to pay attention to different aspects of the playing technique. The Sonata in D, op. 3,5 is a good example: the variations focus on triples, scales and arpeggios, double stops and broken chords. It was the aim of composers like Graziani to not ask too much from amateurs cellists, but at the same time to make his music challenging enough to fulfill its educational duties. The opus 3 bears witness to that.

In addition this disc offers some music from manuscript. They are different in that the bass part is not figured. This suggests that the keyboard can be left out and the cello can be accompanied by another cello alone. This practice is applied in the Sonata in D. This piece is also remarkable in that the cellist is required to play in scordatura, meaning that he has to change the tuning of the strings. The Sonata in A has a title which refers to Graziani's journey from Berlin to Breslau in 1777, but it can't be considered programme or descriptive music. This sonata also ends with a rondeau. The Capriccio in C is for cello without accompaniment. It is in three movements, and may have been written again as an didactic piece, possibly for Graziani's royal pupil.

This disc gives a fine survey of the oeuvre of a forgotten master of the cello. This music is well worth listening to, and there is hardly a better guide than Gaetano Nasillo, with his impressive technique and his engaging and compelling interpretation. This is music-making of the highest order, and that goes also for his companions Sara Bennici and Luca Guglielmi. One doesn't need to be a cello student to enjoy this disc.

The third disc also contains 'educational' repertoire. Angela East writes: "The pieces on this CD have been brought together because they are taught to cello students during the early years of their taining. Few artists have considered recording these works as they remember them to be rather simple. Played with imagination, in baroqure style and with a baroque cello however, these pieces assume a completely different dimension". I assume the Bach suite doesn't belong to the categories she mentions in these lines. It is rather unfortunate that the Suite No 1 in G (BWV 1007) has been included in the programme. Those who like her performance would probably purchase her complete recording which was released at the same label, but then they get this suite twice.

I haven't heard that recording yet, but if the first suite is anything to go by I don't look forward to it. The prelude is slow, and for the largest part all notes are played the same, without any differentiation. The treatment of dynamics is rather odd, and so is the phrasing of the courante. In other movements the articulation is often questionable. One has to take every performance seriously, but the fact that Angela East is a member of the ensemble Red Priest - which chops baroque music and adapts it to its own (bad) taste - isn't exactly an encouragement to do so. That is also the case with the performances of the other compositions on this disc. Angela East takes many liberties, and as I don't know most of the pieces I can't assess whether these liberties are justified by the music or just a matter of her personal taste. Considering the amount of freedom baroque composers allowed performers to take one shouldn't be too strict in this respect.

The performances of the sonatas by De Fesch and Vivaldi seem fine to me, but the last movement of the Sonata in G by either Giuseppe Sammartini (or his brother Giovanni Battista) or Martin Berteau - or probably both of them - does sound rather odd, and I am not sure whether I would like to hear that again. The transcriptions of the pieces by Couperin don't convince me. It is true that the composer aimed at incorporating Italian elements into his music, and that would probably justify a performance with the 'Italian' cello, to my ears it doesn't sound right, and especially the top notes come off much better on that most French of all instruments, the viola da gamba.

So, on balance I am not that enthusiastic about this disc. The Sammartini/Berteau and the Eccles sonatas are interesting and well worth getting to know, but De Fesch, Vivaldi and, of course, Bach have been recorded before, and probably - in the case of Bach certainly - better.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Angela East

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