musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Cello Sonatas

Ensemble Explorations
Dir: Roel Dieltiens

rec: July 20 - 22, 2009, Antwerp, AMUZ
Et'cetera - KTC 4035 (© 2009) (77'17")

Sonata in e minor (RV 40) Sonata in a minor (RV 43) Sonata in a minor (RV 44) Sonata in B flat (RV 46) Sonata in B flat (RV 47)

Roel Dieltiens, Amat Santacana [bc], cello; Love Persson, violone; Jurgen De Bruyn, theorbo, guitar, voice; Bart Naessens, harpsichord

There is some confusion about what exactly composers had in mind when they wrote music for the cello. The instrument known today as the cello and played with overhand bow grip was not necessarily the same as the instrument used in Vivaldi's time. In his liner notes Marc Vanscheeuwijck refers to Antonio Vandini, the cellist for whom Vivaldi wrote a number of cello concertos. He used a vertically held bass violin, smaller than the modern cello, with four or five strings and played with underhand bow grip. This could be the instrument Vivaldi's cello works are written for, but the violoncello da spalla, held with a strap around the neck and played like a large viola, is also a candidate. Here Roel Dieltiens plays the 'conventional' baroque cello.

Vivaldi has written eight sonatas for cello and bc; the best-known are the six sonatas which were published around 1739 in Paris. They were among the first compositions by Vivaldi which were played in public concerts, although sometimes in arrangements. But as these sonatas probably have circulated before they were printed there is some uncertainty about the authenticity of at least some of them. Roel Dieltiens plays here four of the six sonatas, as well as the Sonata in a minor (RV 44) which was not published in Vivaldi's lifetime.

The cello sonatas are available in several complete recordings, for instance by David Watkin (Hyperion), Jaap ter Linden (Brilliant Classics) and Ophélie Gaillard (Ambroisie). But as Roel Dieltiens is one of the world's leading baroque cellists who with his ensemble Explorations has made a number of fine recordings it is good to have his approach to some of these sonatas. I am a little puzzled about this approach, though - the booklet doesn't tell anything about it.

As harsh as it sounds, this disc is a real stinker. I am hardly ever saying that about a disc as I respect the artists too much and am convinced they are giving their best in what they are doing. But what happens here is simply inacceptable.

First of all, it is very common nowadays - alas - to change the scoring of the basso continuo within a sonata from one movement to the other. But Dieltiens goes a step further. Here it sometimes changes from phrase to phrase. In the closing allegro of the Sonata in a minor (RV 43), for instance there is a continuous shift from organ to harpsichord within a couple of minutes. In a number of movements the theorbo comes in only to disappear again after some phrases.

The harpsichord is generally very obtrusive and much too busy. The violone is also regularly far too loud. In the very first movement of this disc, the largo from the Sonata in e minor (RV 40), the theorbo sometimes is so loud that it looks like the second solo instrument. The same happens with the continuo cello in the first largo from the Sonata in B flat (RV 47), where it pretty much spoils part of the solo cello's line. In this same movement the sudden entrances of the harpsichord are outright annoying. Somewhere Dieltiens plays an ornament which is totally off the mark.

Very strange are the changes in dynamics. I am not referring here to the natural dynamic contrasts which are reflecting the hierarchy of the notes but a kind of crescendo within a couple of bars. That happens in the first movement of the Sonata in e minor I already referred to. The dynamic level increases and then decreases; it sounds as if someone has manipulated the record level control. I can't see any musical reason for it.

But then, nor can I find any justification for the addition of improvisations. Most extreme is the Sonata in a minor (RV 44), where the first movement is followed by an organ improvisation of almost five minutes. After the second movement we get an improvisation on the guitar, and after that Jurgen De Bruyn sings an Italian song. What this is all about, I have no idea. There are other improvisations elsewhere, like on the harpsichord at the end of the first allegro from the Sonata in B flat (RV 47). There is also an improvisatory interlude of the continuo cello and the theorbo somewhere in the middle of the largo from the Sonata in a minor (RV 43).

Although I am all for dynamic accents the way Roel Dieltiens applies them in the second largo of that same sonata is highly exaggerated. If used correctly such a movement gets a nice and irresistable swing, but there is no swing here at all.

This is one of the worst discs I have heard for quite some time. Apparently even world-class performers can come up with a stinker.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Explorations

CD Reviews