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From the bass violin to the cello

[I] "The Bass Violin Solo repertoire"
Mvsica Perdvta
Dir: Renato Criscuolo
rec: Oct 2013 & Dec 2014, Perugia, Chiesa San Martino a Fontana
Urania Records - LDV 14021 (© 2015) (74'14")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Giuseppe COLOMBI (1635-1694): Balletto in G; Balletto - Sarabanda - Balletto; Ballo de li Armeni; Ballo de li Francesi; Ballo degli Spagnoli - Villan de Spagna; Ballo dei Todeschi; Ballo del condilino; Ballo del fiore e sua corrente; Ballo del guanto; Bergamo; Brando 1,2,3; Brando 1,2,3; Corrente 1,2,3; Corrente à solo; Gagliarda in g minor; Galadina; Gavotta 1,2; Gavotta reale; Giga à basso solo; Il ritorno del Re; La Borea; La Caracina; La Contessa; La Duchessa; La Madama; La Modena e la sua Bergiera; La Mustarda; La Parma; Partire sopra il basso di Ciaccona; Sinfonia in C; Tromba à basso solo del Colombi; Tutti insieme; Giovanni Lorenzo LULIER (1662-1700): Sonata in F; Sonata in a minor; Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Bergamasca per la lettera B in C; Capritio; Capritio sopra le 8 figure; Capritio sopra li 5 tempi; Chiaccona prt la lettera B in C; Passagalli per la lettera E; Passo e mezzo per B quadro sopra la lettera B; Passo e mezzo per la lettera D 1,2,3,4; Ruggiero per la lettera B in C; Toccata in C

Source: Giovanni Battista Vitali, Partite diverse sopra diverse sonate per il Violone, n.d.

Renato Criscuolo, bass violin; Bud Roach, guitar; Alberto Bagnai,harpsichord

[II] "Cello Tales"
Ensemble Chiaroscuro; Roberta Invernizzi, sopranoa
Dir: Antonio Fantinuoli
rec: July 12 & August 8 - 10, 2016, Torbi (Genua), Chiesa di S. Lorenzo
Concerto - CD 2101 (© 2017) (64'52")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Francesco ALBOREA (1691-1739): Sonata in D; Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805): Sonata in A (G 4); Giuseppe Maria (or Joseph-Marie-Clément) DALL'ABACO (1710-1805): Capriccio VI in e minor; Giovanni Battista DEGLI ANTONII (1660-after 1696): Ricercata II in d minor, op. 1,2; Ricercata XI in G, op. 1,11; Friedrich DOTZAUER (1793-1860): Etude No. 17 in e minor; Domenico GABRIELLI (1659-1690): Flavio Cuniberto (Vuoi tu, aria)a; Ricercar I in g minor; Ricercar VI in G; Sonata in G; Giovanni Battista SOMIS (1686-1763): Sonata III in Gb; Sonata V in g minorb; Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Bergamasca in C; Chiaconna in C; Ruggiero in C; Toccata in C

Sources: Giovanni Battista Vitali, Partite diverse sopra diverse sonate per il Violone, n.d.; Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii, Ricercate sopra il violoncello, op. 1, 1687

Antonio Fantinuoli, cello; Perikli Pite, cellob; Craig Marchitelli, theorbo

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. The two discs reviewed here seem to sum up the development from the bass violin to the cello. Renato Criscuolo focuses on the repertoire of the late 17th century, dominated by the bass violin. 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. However, that is an oversimplification. Things are much more complicated than that, as Marc Vanscheeuwijck argues in 'Cello Stories', the book which accompanies a number of recordings of Bruno Cocset and released by Alpha (Alpha 890, 2016).

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. It is not entirely clear when the cello as it was commonly used in the 18th century, exactly made its first appearance. The title pages leave us largely in the dark.

Giovanni Battista Vitali is one of the main composers in Criscuolo's programme. Interestingly Antonio Fantinuoli plays four pieces which Criscuolo also recorded. This allows for a direct comparison. The difference in sound is unmistakable: the bass violin has a rougher, less polished sound and the contrast in colour between the upper and the lower register is more pronounced. To what extent the instrument results in different interpretations is hard to say as the bass violin and the cello are played by different artists. It would be interesting to hear one of them playing these pieces alternately on both instruments. Fantinuoli has mostly swifter tempi and he plays them as solos, whereas in Criscuolo's performance the harpsichord and the guitar play the basso continuo. The score includes only a stave for a bass instrument; there is no indication of a basso continuo part. Criscuolo's addition of such a part is apparently a matter of artistic freedom.

The pieces by Vitali are taken from a collection in manuscript, entitled Partite diverse sopra diverse sonate per il Violone. This seems to suggest that the bass violin is the more 'authentic' instrument here. But that would be premature. We don't know when Vitali's pieces were written. The same goes for the pieces by Giuseppe Colombi, the second composer in Criscuoli's programme. I could find only one piece, called Toccata, which has the addition a Violone solo. This again suggests that is was written for the bass violin. However, Vanscheeuwijck mentions that in the pieces for violone Colombi often used B♭1, but that his contemporary Domenico Galli (1649-1697) in his Trattenimento musicale sopra il violoncello à solo makes use of the same tuning. That justifies the conclusion that the words violone and violoncello could refer to the same instrument. Therefore the title page of the Ricercate sopra il violoncello, which Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii published as his op. 1 in 1687, also doesn't tell us anything in regard to the identity of the instrument, for which these pieces are intended. It is notable that Vitali, Colombi and Gabrielli dedicated their pieces for the string bass to the same person: Francesco II d'Este, Duke of Modena (16601-1694), an avid amateur player of the bass violin. That term is used in New Grove, but - considering the confusion about the exact nature of string bass instruments in 17th-century Italy - that tells us little about exactly what kind of instrument he played. One may assume that he played the violone in the 17th-century meaning of the word. Did he also play the cello or turned he later to that instrument? It is likely that the two instruments for some time coexisted, as the viola da gamba and the cello in 18th-century Germany and France.

Let's turn to the two recordings and the music the two artists play. In his recording Criscuolo plays a reconstruction of a bass violin which is based on early 17th-century iconography. "The length of the vibrating string is around 74 cm, the length of the chest is 80 cm and the height is 132 cm. The instrument is mounted entirely with bare gut strings, tuned in G-C-F-B flat, that is a tone below the cello." His programme focuses on Vitali and Colombi. In addition to the four pieces also recorded by Fantinuoli Criscuoli plays a number of pieces by Vitali, again with guitar accompaniment. The use of a Spanish guitar may cause some surprise, but the addition of letters (B,E) in some of the pieces refers to the tablature of that instrument, which points in the direction of such an accompaniment. Most of the pieces by Colombi - like Vitali violinist by profession - are for bass violin without a basso continuo part. They are mostly very short and give the impression of being intended as pedagogical material. It is telling that these pieces are recorded here for the first time, whereas the few pieces with a basso continuo part - also somewhat longer - have been recorded before. These short items are mainly suited to demonstrate the features of the bass violin. From a purely musical point of view they are less interesting, except probably for the player himself and those listeners who play a string bass. In comparison the pieces by Vitali are more appealing for the common listener.

The third composer in the programme is Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier. He has become best known for the fact that the overture to his oratorio S Beatrice d'Este was written by Arcangelo Corelli. He had the nickname Giovannino del Violone, which indicates that he was a professional player of the bass violin. However, he has not left a single piece for his instrument - or any instrumental music, for that matter. The two sonatas recorded here are anonymous, but have been attributed to Lulier. They are for string bass and bc; the Sonata in F is in three movements, the first of which is divided into two sections, whereas the Sonata in a minor has five movements, mainly dances.

This disc is highly interesting, because of the music which is largely unknown and because of the instrument. The bass violin is regularly played, mainly in the basso continuo of performances of 17th-century sacred music, but hardly ever as a solo instrument. It is masterly played by Renato Criscuolo whose performances are technically flawless; his approach of the material is imaginative. Nobody interested in the history of string bass instruments should miss this disc.

Criscuolo confines himself to repertoire from the late 17th century, the logical effect of his playing the bass violin. Antonio Fantinuoli makes a journey through the repertoire for the bass violin and the cello respectively from the late 17th to the first half of the 19th century. He opens his programme with two pieces by Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii, whom I already mentioned. He seems not to have played the string bass, but was a professional organist and player of the trombone. Next we hear some of the pieces by Domenico Gabrielli; his sonatas and ricercares count among the best-known compositions for the cello from the late 17th century. He had the nickname Minghino dal violoncello, minghino being the diminutive of Domenico. He was born in Bologna and studied the cello with Petronio Franceschini, whom he succeeded as cellist in the basilica San Petronio after his teacher's death in 1680. His main importance from a historical point of view is his contribution to the development of the cello as a common instrument. His oeuvre of pieces for his instrument is small but he also gave it parts in some sacred compositions as well as in his sonatas for trumpets and strings. His seven Ricercari were never printed and were probably written for pedagogical purposes. They are scored for cello without accompaniment; the Sonata in G is one of two for cello and bc. Very interesting is the aria 'Vuoi tu' from his opera Flavio Cuniberto, which was first performed in Modena in 1682. It has an obbligato part for the cello, undoubtedly the very first in music history.

Next we turn to the 18th century. Giovanni Battista Somis has become best known as a teacher of several famous violinist-composers, such as Jean-Marie Leclair. The two sonatas recorded here are duets for two cellos, which - according to Fantinuoli - were published by Le Cène in Paris around 1725. They are not included in the work-list in New Grove; there we find a set of twelve cello sonatas printed in Paris around 1738, but I assume those are different pieces. As a composer Somis is not that well known and these two duets are probably recorded here for the first time. Hardly known is Francesco Alborea, who was from Naples. He was quite famous; he once played with Alessandro Scarlatti, and Geminiani praised him for his expressive playing. Martin Berteau, the teacher of the Duport brothers, switched from the viola da gamba to the cello after having heard Alborea play. The Sonata in D for cello and bc consists of three movements: amoroso, allegro and menuet.

The disc ends with music by three virtuosos on the cello. Luigi Boccherini is a household name, but he is still overshadowed by his contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. He was the greatest cello virtuoso of his time and most of his music for the cello was intended for his own use. That is certainly the case with the Sonata in A, one of his most demanding pieces, which includes a passage where the performer has to play on the bare string without the support of the fingerboard. Giuseppe Maria (or Joseph-Marie-Clément) dall'Abaco was the son of the better-known Evaristo Felice. In New Grove he is called "a Flemish composer and cellist of Italian descent", as he was born in Brussels, where his father worked at the time. The latter sent his son to Venice for his musical education. After his return he was a member of the electoral chapel in Bonn from 1729. Apparently he was allowed to travel across Europe as a cello virtuoso; he made appearances in this capacity in London and Vienna. He composed sonatas for his own instrument, but Antonio Fantinuoli selected one of his eleven Capricci. These have a rather improvisatory character, and one could compare a piece like the Capriccio VI in e minor with the preludes from Bach's suites for cello solo.

The programme ends with a piece from the 19th century. Friedrich Dotzauer was a pupil of Johann Jacob Kriegk, a pupil of Jean-Louis Duport. In 1827 his edition of Bach's cello suites was published by Breitkopf & Härtel. He is considered the founder of the Dresden cello school; one of his sons also became a cellist. He published several treatises. The Etude No. 17 in e minor is from a collection of 113 which were published in the late 19th century.

This disc is a most interesting survey of the development of what has become one of the main instruments in Western music. One could criticize that Antonio Fantinuoli plays the same instrument - which is not specified in the booklet - for the entire programme. That is certainly a minus. There is nothing wrong with the performances, though. In Boccherini I would have liked a bit more fire and zest. All in all I have very much enjoyed this disc, which is also valuable for the inclusion of little-known repertoire, and that includes the aria by Domenico Gabrielli, beautifully sung by Roberta Invernizzi.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Chiaroscuro
Mvsica Perdvta

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