Angelo Maria FIORE: Complete cello sonatas & 17th c. Italian Operas – Elinor Frey (baroque cello) – Passacaille

Angelo Maria FIORE: Complete cello sonatas & 17th c. Italian Operas – Elinor Frey (baroque cello) – Passacaille 1026, 74:38, (5/1/17) ****:

Late Baroque ascendency of the cello in Northern Italian sonata and vocal music, brilliantly played on original instruments.

(Elinor Frey; baroque cello / Lorenzo Ghielmi; harpsichord / Suzie LeBlanc; soprano / Esteban La Rotta; theorbo)

If asked to guess the origin of the major human inventions such as the mechanical clock, gunpowder, the compass, or paper, the safe guess is usually China. When it comes to musical forms and instruments, however, one should posit an Italian source, the heritage that has bequeathed us the very word “invention.”

The recording under review documents the debut of the cello as a solo instrument at the end of the 17th century in the Northern Italian courts of Bologna, Padua and Modena. The cello enjoyed a most dramatic triumph over the viol family, until then the long-standing instrumental choice of the nobility and amateurs throughout Europe, ending in the total eclipse of its rival. The Sonatas of Angelo Maria Fiore demonstrate just how the ‘“veni, vedi, vici” attitude of the instrument managed this conquest.

First, a number of cellist composers attached to the court in Modena began to feature the cello in the position typically enjoyed by the violin in the sonata da camara style. The voice of the cello, louder and more rhetorically persuasive than the viols, assumed the dual role of recitative, boisterous and showy, as well as that of the tender aria in the slow movements. Of course, as this was a public music, played by skilled practitioners, there was a premium on virtuosity—and cello would strain to reach the dazzling effects of the super-refined fiddling techniques of the era.

Here, Elinor Frey plays the complete cello sonatas of Fiore with the able accompaniment of Lorenzo Ghielmi on the harpsichord and  diffident theorbo from Esteban Rotta. These compact suites catch the Italian style at its happy zenith. Melodic inspiration is perfectly balanced against shifting moods of tempi and register, the latter often so dramatic as to sound like two different instruments. The baroque cello of Ms. Frey is captured in brilliant detail, as is the harpsichord. It is easy to see why this music was a popular export. The substantial liner notes detail the diffusion of Fiore’s work across Northern Europe, with even a transcription for viol found in England.

The voice of soprano Suzie LeBlanc is heard on six 17th-century arias by as many composers. Each of these demonstrates the new role of cello, as in the opera-inspired vocal works. No longer merely an accompaniment, it is a fully fledged duo partner with obligato parts of equal complexity. The finest moment of this rapport can be heard in the anonymous Amo il regno et amo figlio. The first subject sounds as if Pergolesi had suddenly taken a fancy to the cello and set it against his plangent utterances. The texts in this case, however, are the slight and insipid set of clichés prevalent in the madrigal literature, an obstacle that the lovers of Italian music learn to overcome.

With the arias coming between the sonatas, the ear is bathed in a super-abundance of sonic pleasure. And yet more treats are in store for us. Just when lyrical gushing reaches satiety, there are a couple of harpsichord solo pieces by Carlo Monza, an obscure maestro from a Savoy court. These are played with consummate artistry on a pleasant sounding instrument of which no details are available. Again the engineers strove for an immersive sound, but the most lasting impressions are of the refinements of language and the almost Gallic contemplative feel. I suppose this music would have done well with  Louis XIV in Versailles at the turn of the century.

Overall, this is a release of immense interest to the Baroque audience, a most interesting recital from the point of view of repertoire and performance. For Italian opera buffs, for whom the caro-amaro rhymes and endless protests over fede, amor and stelle avverse are simply the air one breathes, this is not to be missed. Passacaille has done an excellent job with the production, including the striking contemporary painting of a tulip, a perfect image of the Baroque.

—Fritz Balwit

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