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"Italian Concertos & Sonatas"

Lucia Swarts, cello
Richte van der Meer, celloaabc; Robert Franenberg, violoneb; Stephen Stubbs, luteb, theorboc, guitarb; Siebe Henstra, harpsichordb Teatro Liricoa
Dir: Stephen Stubbs
rec: Jan 17 - 18, 1997b, March 3 - 6, 1998a, June 28 & 30, July 1, 1999c, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerkac, Renswoude, NH Kerkb
ChallengeClassics - CC72516 (3 CDs) (R) (© 2011) (60'20" / 65'20" / 55'30")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[CD 1: Cello Concertosa]
Giuseppe Maria JACCHINI (1667-1727): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in F, op. 4,9; Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in d minor; Giovanni Benedetto PLATTI (1697-1763): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in C; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in c minor; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for two cellos, strings and bc in g minor (RV 531)aa
[CD 2: Antonio VIVALDI, Sonatas for cello and bcb]
Sonata in e minor (RV 40); Sonata in F (RV 41); Sonata in a minor (RV 43); Sonata in B flat (RV 45); Sonata in B flat (RV 46); Sonata in B flat (RV 47)
[CD 3: Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805): Sonatas for cello and bassc]
Sonata in C (G 6); Sonata in E flat (G 10); Sonata in G (G 5); Sonata in A (G 13)

The cello was developed and rose to prominence in Italy, like the violin, but considerably later. It is only toward the end of the 17th century that composers started to write solo music for the cello which required some virtuosity. But soon it became a popular instrument, and in the first half of the 18th century many concertos and sonatas were written.

This set of three discs which originally were released a little more than 10 years ago contain an illuminating survey of the development of composing for the cello. As it was especially popular in Italy all music is by Italian composers. But that doesn't mean these sonatas and concertos were only played there. One of the main moving spirits behind the emergence of music for the cello was the German Duke Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn (1677-1754) who had close ties to Benedetto Platti. His hunger for new music for his beloved cello was insatiable, and as a result Platti composed a large number of solo concertos and sonatas. The Duke was also the most likely incentive for Antonio Caldara to compose his cello sonatas at the end of his life. The Duke's library contained 149 printed editions and nearly 500 manuscripts.

Platti is often considered an innovator, but the cello concertos on the first disc of this set are rather baroque in style. The earliest piece is the Concerto in F, op. 4,9 by Giuseppe Maria Jacchini, pupil of the first great cello virtuoso in history, Domenico Gabrielli. This concerto is concise, and the cello part is not very extended nor very virtuosic. Notable is the role of the first violin, often involved in a dialogue with the cello. Highly virtuosic is the Concerto in g minor (RV 531) by Antonio Vivaldi, who also composed a large number of concertos for solo cello. The next stage is the music by representatives of the Neapolitan school, Nicola Antonio Porpora and Leonardo Leo. The former is mainly known for his vocal music. He was also active as a singing teacher; one of this pupils was the famous castrato Farinelli. Leo was also first and foremost known for his operas but today his relatively small number of instrumental works are best-known. Among them are the six cello concertos, which have no viola part. This could indicate a performance with one instrument per part - here the Concerto in d minor, one of the most frequently-played, is performed with a string orchestra. It is a perfect specimen of the lyrical and galant idiom of the Neapolitan school.

In comparison to the number of his cello concertos the corpus of Vivaldi's cello sonatas is rather limited, although it is likely he has written more than those which are extant. Nine sonatas are considered authentic, among them the six which were published in France in the 1730's. It is unlikely Vivaldi was involved in its publication which was driven by the increasing popularity of Vivaldi's music and of the cello in France at the time. Several of these sonatas are also available in manuscript, which differ in some details from the printed versions. It is not known for sure why Vivaldi has written the sonatas. They were probably commissioned by aristocratic dilettantes. The above-mentioned Duke Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn could have been one of them, as two - among them the Sonata in B flat (RV 46) - are included in his library. All sonatas are written in the form of the sonata da chiesa, with four movements: largo, allegro, largo, allegro. The Sonata in B flat I just mentioned has the form of the sonata da camera, in which two of the four movements are referring to a dance - allemanda and corrente respectively - and the opening movement is called 'preludio'.

These sonatas are characterised by strong contrasts between the slow, quite lyrical and expressive movements and the lively fast movements with their pronounced rhythms. The latter are emphasized by the scoring of the basso continuo part in the performances, in which cello, violone, guitar, lute and harpsichord play in various combinations. One of the most notable examples is the Sonata in a minor (RV 43), whereas the second largo from the Sonata in B flat (RV 46) is a specimen of Vivaldi's expressive powers.

Vivaldi's compositions for the cello show the technical advances in the playing of the cello. He extended the height to the fifth and sixth positions (around g"). In his cello sonatas Luigi Boccherini went a step further: he introduced the thumb position and as a result b" flat was now the highest note. His historical importance is not disputed. "For us cellists Boccherini is supremely important", Lucia Swarts is quoted in the booklet. But the quality of his music is anything but undisputed. Some of today's cellists are enthusiastic advocates of Boccherini's oeuvre, like Lucia Swarts' teacher Anner Bijlsma, others never play a note written by him. Opinions were equally divided in Boccherini's own time and shortly afterwards. Whereas his oeuvre was praised by his contemporary Grétry as "gloomy, tender, rending, gracious and even excessively gay", some decades later Louis Spohr's verdict was pretty harsh: "This is no music".

It is unlikely either of them knew Boccherini's cello sonatas. Even he himself didn't pay much attention to them; he hardly ever mentioned them. Around 32 are known, only six of which were printed in London in 1772. Manuscripts and sketches are spread over various archives and libraries in Europe. It is likely he wrote them for his own use, to play them during public concerts. The scoring is a bit of a problem: they contain a bass line, but it is not figured and it is by no means certain that a keyboard was involved. Some performers opt for a second cello to play this part; in this recording the combination of a second cello and a plucked instrument is chosen.

These sonatas are unmistakably from Boccherini's pen, and if you know his string quintets you will recognize melodic ideas and the atmosphere which is characteristic of his oeuvre. Even so they are quite different and one can imagine they strongly reflect Boccherini's own skills as a performer. They are technically demanding but not - as far as I can judge - in the extreme. There are some bold movements like the 'allegro alla militaire' which opens the Sonata in G (G 5). But these are outweighed by wonderfully expressive movements. One of the most beautiful pieces is the Sonata in E flat (G 10). In the adagio the sound of the cello reminded me of the lirone, the string instrument whose lamenting character was so popular in 17th century Italy. The closing affettuoso is of great expressive depth.

Some of Boccherini's cello sonatas are available in other recordings, for instance by Anner Bijlsma. Recently the Italian cellist Luigi Puxeddu made a complete recording (Brilliant Classics), which I haven't heard yet. But Lucia Swarts has made a nice choice and plays these four sonatas impressively. There is no lack of technical brilliance, but she focuses on the sonata's content, and reveals their beauty, playing with differentiation and much refinement. On the other discs she is equally convincing. Vivaldi's sonatas are given energetic interpretations, with an infectious drive which is also due to the excellent playing of the basso continuo group. In the concertos the cooperation with Teatro Lirico is immaculate. The extraverted and the more lyrical moments come off equally well.

This set is a garden of pleasure for every cello fan. Purchase and enjoy!

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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