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"From Mannheim to Berlin - Sonatas for cello piccolo"

Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde, cello piccolo; Victor García García, cello; Artem Belogurov, fortepiano

rec: Nov 19 - 21, 2021, Velp (NL), Emmausklooster
Challenge Classics - CC72961 (© 2023) (70'07")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Sonata for keyboard and cello in A; Franz BENDA (1709-1786): Sonata for cello and bc in D; Georg CZARTH (1708-c1778): Sonata for cello and bc in F; Anton FILTZ (1733-1760): Sonata for cello and bc in A, op. 5,2; Christoph SCHAFFRATH (1709-1763): Sonata a 2, cembalo obligato e violoncello in C; Joseph Benedikt ZYKA (c1720-1791): Sonata for cello and bc in G

To say that the history of the instrument today known as 'cello' is a bit complicated, is an understatement. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries different names have been given to one particular instrument, whereas different instruments sometimes were given the same name. A useful summary of what we know about the history of the cello was part of a set of discs, released in 2016 by Alpha; the author, Marc Vanscheeuwijck, is a cellist himself and an established authority in this field. The subject that is of interest with regard to the recording reviewed here is the cello piccolo.

Most music lovers may know that this is the instrument which today is mostly used for the performance of Bach's sixth Suite for cello solo. They may also know that in some of his cantatas Bach included an aria with an obbligato part for cello piccolo. The difference is that in Bach's cantatas this instrument is specifically mentioned, whereas in all manuscripts of the suite the intended instrument is specified as à cinq cordes. Moreover, in most of the arias an instrument with four strings is required, whereas in some others a five-string instrument is the most logical option. Vanscheeuwijck concludes that violoncelli piccoli may have existed in four- and five-string versions. This seems to be confirmed by a musical instrument inventory from Cöthen (1773), in which a cello piccolo with five strings and one with four strings are listed. As far as compositions are concerned: the term violoncello piccolo only appears in Bach's cantatas written between October 1724 and May 1725. In a Breitkopf catalogue of 1762 41 works for violoncello piccolo, ò violoncello da braccio are listed, with incipits. The use of these two terms as synonyms suggests that the cello piccolo may have been played on the shoulder, like the violoncello (or viola) da spalla. Lastly, Giovanni Battista Sammartini wrote a concerto for cello piccolo.

A quotation of Van Scheeuwijck puts the present disc in its historical perspective. "Our modern obsession with finding the perfect correlation between a term and the concept it represents is largely irrelevant for the period under consideration here, because our perspective is too global for a period that concerned itself only with local, or at best regional matters. A violoncello in Leipzig might be exactly the same thing as a viola da spalla elsewhere, whereas a violoncello in Hamburg might be a very different instrument from the violoncello in Cöthen".

Let's turn to the present disc with sonatas by German composers of the mid-18th century. Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde was inspired to put together this programme, when she acquired a cello with four strings, made by J.M. Alban in Graz somewhere in the 18th century. "The instrument is of a smaller size than today’s standard cello, and the sound is silky, malleable and rich. I had heard of the existence of four-string violoncello piccolos (tuned G-d-a-e') during the 17th and 18th centuries, and soon I decided to try this tuning on my small 18th-century cello. The result was impressive: the instrument's tone became bright, crystalline and colourful, with an enhanced singing quality on the top string, now a fifth higher than the standard 'a'."

All the pieces in the programme are scored for the cello; I conclude from Ms Dostaler-Lalonde's liner-notes that none of them specifically refers to the violoncello piccolo. However, as we just have seen, that does tell us next to nothing about the specific instrument the composer may have had in mind. Therefore it makes much sense and it is perfectly legitimate that the artist looked for pieces whose compass fitted the tuning of her cello.

The only piece that had to be adapted is the last item in the programme: the Sonata in A by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. However, this piece has not been preserved in its original state anyway: the manuscript was destroyed during World War II and only a 19th-century arrangement, in which the sonata is transposed to D major, is available. The artists present here their own version "of what the piece might have sounded like in the original key, if a cello in higher tuning was used." The track-list does not indicate that it is the first recording of this work, but I have not been able to find another recording. Anyway, I did not know it; it is a very nice work in three movements. The last is a rondo, whose theme has the traces of a popular song and has the qualities of an earworm.

Four of the five other sonatas are first recordings. The programme opens with a piece for an obbligato keyboard and cello by Christoph Schaffrath. He was a key figure in the Berlin music scene. He was born in Hohenstein, but whether he came from a musical family or who his first teacher was is not known. In 1733 he applied for the position of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, but he was rejected - Wilhelm Friedemann Bach secured the post instead. The next year he entered the service of Frederick the Great, who was still Crown-Prince at that time. Frederick started his own chapel in Ruppin, which moved to Rheinsberg in 1736. With his accession to the throne in 1740 Schaffrath became harpsichordist in his chapel. The next year he entered the service of Frederick's sister Anna Amalia. Apparently Schaffrath left Frederick's court, as his name does not appear in a list of musicians of the chapel from 1754. Schaffrath composed quite a number of works for keyboard and a melody instrument. The keyboard parts may have been intended for himself or for Anna Amalia, who was a good keyboard player. As one may expect in a piece from this time, there are quite some episodes in which the cello and the right hand of the keyboard move in parallels.

With Frantisek (or Franz) Benda, we stay in Berlin and at Frederick's court. He was in the latter's service and one of the greatest violin virtuosos of his time. He was especially admired for the way he played the slow movements of his own sonatas. Here we have a sonata which can be played either on the violin or the cello. It is written, as was the fashion in Berlin in the mid-18th century, in three movements, the first of which being in a slow or modest (here: andante) tempo, followed by two fast movements. The second is particularly brilliant, whereas the last has a more relaxed character.

The third piece is by Anton Filtz (or Fils), which brings us in Mannheim. He was a cellist, like his father, who was in the service of the court in Eichstätt. In 1754 he became cellist in the orchestra of the electoral court in Mannheim, which - largely thanks to Johann Stamitz - was one of the finest of its time, and called an 'army of generals' by Charles Burney. Despite his short life, he left a substantial number of works, among them symphonies and around 30 solo concertos for cello and for flute. His virtuosity comes to the fore in the Sonata in A played here.

The two next composers are almost entirely unknown quantities. Georg Czarth (or Zarth) was from Bohemia, and was educated at the violin and the flute. He studied in Vienna, but when he met Franz Benda, they followed the same path in their career, until 1757 or 1758, when Czarth moved to Mannheim, whereas Benda stayed in Berlin. In the Sonata in F, an expressive largo, reflecting the spirit of the Empfindsamkeit, is followed by two sparkling fast movements, the second of which is a minuet but in name.

Joseph Benedikt Zyka is a composer, who is not mentioned in my edition of New Grove. He was employed in Dresden and later entered the service of Frederick the Great. Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde points out that this work has "vocal qualities which may have been inspired by the Venetian singers employed in Dresden." The piece opens with a movement in two sections, opening with an andante in a free rhythm, which is followed by an adagio. It is something like a recitative and aria. In this work the basso continuo is played by the cello alone, without the participation of a keyboard instrument.

It is probably superfluous to state that this disc is very interesting from a historical point of view. Not only because it includes four first recordings, and some by composers who are hardly known or not known at all, but also because it is an important contribution to our knowledge of the cello and its development. One wonders whether other instruments of the kind played here may be found. As we may conclude from the writings of Marc Vanscheeuwijck, the indication of the instrument for which a piece is written, does not tell us that much about the exact nature of it. The procedure followed here by Ms Dostaler-Lalonde seems a fruitful one, and the tessitura of some sonatas may well indicate that the composer had an instrument like her's in mind. More research into this matter would be useful.

Apparently quite a number of works have been found which fit the range of this cello. For this programme a selection was made, and it is a very good one. Every single piece performed her is of excellent quality and has a character of its own. It was a nice idea to vary the programme with regard to the relationship between the various instruments. Two of the pieces are for an obbligato keyboard and cello, four for cello and basso continuo. Artem Belogurov delivers excellent performances on the fortepiano, a copy of an instrument by Johann Andreas Stein of 1783. The practice of accompaniment by a single cello is not often applied today, but is very interesting and musically rewarding, if it is realised in such a creative manner as here by Victor García García. The star of the show is, of course, Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde, who made a great impression in the Utrecht Early Music Festival of 2022, and whose qualities are confirmed here. This is playing of the highest calibre: she produces a beautiful tone, and her speechlike and dynamically differentiated interpretation does bring these pieces to life.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Artem Belogurov

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