Saturday, February 25, 2023

The cello in Italy (1)

The history of the cello, which has played such an important role at the music scene until the present day, is rather complicated. String bass instruments were used since the renaissance, but their names often cause confusion. The baroque cello as we know it today, made its appearance in the last quarter of the 17th century in Italy. At that time the most common string bass was called violone, but it seems likely that the word violoncello and violone were sometimes interchangeable. One of the pioneers of the cello was Domenico Gabrielli, but whether he played the instrument now known as cello or rather the old violone, is hard to decide. Anyway, whereas his small oeuvre for the 'cello' is rather well-known and available in several recordings, not often they are played on the violone. Alessandro Palmeri [1] plays a splendid historical instrument, built in Rome in 1685 by Simone Cimapane. He put together a programme around Corelli, although only some of the composers had any ties with him. This disc rather gives us some idea of what was going on at Corelli's time in Rome, but also in Bologna, where Gabrielli, Pietro Giuseppe Gaetano Boni and Giovanni Battista Vitali were active. An interesting piece is Tromba per il violone, by Giuseppe Colomba from Modena, in which the trumpet is imitated. Palmeri is an excellent player, and his colleagues deliver appropriate support.

The next disc is devoted to two virtuosic cellists: Giovanni and Antonio Maria Bononcini. They were famous in this capacity, but until recently only one piece for the cello by Giovanni was known: the Sonata in a minor, included in a collection of six cello sonatas by different composers. However, as two movements show strong similarity with movements from Jean-Marie Leclair's Violin sonata Op. 1 No. 8, there are considerable doubts about its authenticy. That makes the discovery of two Sinfonias for cello and basso continuo, which have been recorded for the first time by the Accademia Ottoboni [2], with Marco Ceccato on the cello, all the more important. In particular the Sinfonia in D includes several technical challenges, which shed light on the composer's own skills. His younger brother Antonio Maria has left a substantial number of pieces for the cello and is represented with three sonatas and a sinfonia of different character. In particular the Sonata IV in a minor from a set of twelve, dating from around 1693, shows the virtuosity for which he was known, for instance in the application of double stopping, tremolos and repeated notes. This piece is also notable for its harmonic progressions. Don't be afraid that the pieces on this disc are only about technique: there are many movements of wonderful lyricism. All the features of these sonatas and sinfonias come perfectly off in these outstanding performances.

Giovanni Bononcini turns up again in the programme recorded by Fondo Barocco [3]. The liner-notes don't mention the doubt about the authenticity of the piece. Also included are two further sonatas from the collection, in which Bononcini's sonata is the first. Giuseppe Sammartini is not known for having played the cello; he rather was an oboist, and a famous one at that. Next to nothing is known about Wenceslaus Spourni, a cellist of Bohemian origin, who worked in Paris. Antonio Caldara, who has become best-known as one of the central figures at the imperial court in Vienna, was educated as a cellist, but only late in his career he wrote cello sonatas, at the request of Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, an ardent lover of the cello and a skilfull amateur player of the instrument, whose archive includes so many treasures for cello and other instruments. What makes this disc special is the way the sonatas are performed. Fondo Barocco consists of just two players: Marie Orsini-Rosenberg (cello) and Herwig Neugebauer (violone). The latter does not play the violone used in modern orchestral performances; that is a 16' instrument. Neugebauer plays an 8' violone in G, whose pitch is comparable to that of the cello. Performing the bass line with just one string bass instrument was quite common at the time, but is seldom practised today. The performers admit that not every sonata can be performed that way; sometimes one simply needs the harmony of a keyboard or plucked instrument. In the sonatas played here this combination works wonderfully well, also thanks to the engaging manner in which the two artist interpret their programme. This is a very fine and entertaining disc, which will give any lover of the cello much pleasure.

A composer who substantially contributed to the repertoire for the cello was Giovanni Benedetto Platti. His oeuvre includes a large number of cello concertos and sonatas for cello and basso continuo. In addition he wrote sonatas for several instruments with obbligato cello parts. Whether this was due to his personal predilection for the cello is hard to prove; his reputation based first and foremost on his skills as an oboist. He played several other instruments, including the violin, the cello and the harpsichord. There is no doubt that his music for the cello was written because of his close connection to the above-mentioned Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, whom he may have accompanied while the latter was playing the cello. The archive of the Count includes the set of twelve sonatas that Francesco Galligioni [4] recorded for Brilliant Classics. The first six are generally somewhat longer and more lyrical than the remaining six, which include more technical challenges. Interestingly, in some of the sonatas the cello is accompanied by the violone, without a keyboard instrument, comparable with the practice in the Fondo Barocco recording. The difference is that here the violone is a 16' instrument. These twelve sonatas show that Platti was an outstanding composer, and there are many movements which attest to his great melodic gifts. Their qualities come off to full extent under the hands of Galligioni, an excellent and stylish interpreter. This set of two discs is interesting and musically compelling, thanks to Platti and the interpreters.

The last composer in this review is someone who may not ring a bell with many music lovers. If the name of Antonio Vandini may sound familiar, it is mainly because he was a close friend of Giuseppe Tartini, and as such he may be mentioned in articles on that great violinist and composer. They often performed together, across Italy and also elsewhere, for instance in Prague. Little is known about his early years, and the liner-notes in the two recordings reviewed here, express different views on aspects of his biography, for instance about who may have been his teacher, and whether he and Vivaldi knew each other and the latter did write some of his cello concertos for him. There is no difference of opinion on two aspects of performance practice. Although some of Vandini's works seem to suggest that they were intended for the five-string cello, both cellists opted for the four-string cello, for historical and technical reasons. Vandini is known to have played the cello in the old-fashioned way, in the underhand grip, like gambists do. Elinor Frey [5] practises this grip in three of the six sonatas and the only concerto. Francesco Galligioni [6], on the other hand, plays this way in all the pieces. The result is a sound that is something between the 'conventional' (baroque) cello and the viola da gamba. There are substantial differences in the performances, for instance in the choice of tempi. Frey is accompanied by different instruments, varying from one sonata to the other, including a second cello, a viola da gamba and a double bass. Galligioni is supported by organ or harpsichord, and in some sonatas by a bassoon. The latter option seems rather odd. The miking is very close, and the acoustic rather dry, which is not very pleasant to listen to. His articulation and dynamic shading are less differentated than Frey's. Overall I tend to prefer the latter's performances, but Galligioni has also something to offer that may appeal to cello aficionados.

[1] "Il Violoncello di Corelli"
Alessandro Palmieri, violone; Takashi Kaketa, cello; Riccardo Doni, harpsichord, organ
Passacaille PAS 1099 (© 2021) details

[2] G & AM Bononcini: "Cello Sonatas"
Marco Ceccato, cello; Accademia Ottoboni
Alpha 826 (© 2022) details

[3] "Baroque Cello Sonatas"
Fondo Barocco
Orlando Records OR0047 (© 2021) details

[4] Platti: "Cello Sonatas"
Francesco Galligioni, cello; members of L'Arte dell'Arco
Brilliant Classics 95763 (© 2019) details

[5] Vandini: "Complete Works"
Elinor Frey, cello; Isabella Bison, Lorenzo Gugole, violin; Maria Bocelli, viola; Marc Vanscheeuwijck, cello [bc]; Patxi Montero, viola da gamba, double bass; Federica Bianchi, harpsichord
Passacaille PAS 1079 (© 2021) details

[6] Vandini: "Complete Works"
Francesco Galligioni, cello; L'arte dell'Arco
Dynamic CDS7890 (© 2020) details