Antonio VIVALDI: Sonatas for Cello and Basso Continuo – Jean-Guihen Queyras – Harmonia mundi 902278 – 71:11, (9/7/18): ****½:
(Jean-Guihen Queyras; cello, Michael Behringer; harpsichord/ organ; Lee Santana; theorbo, Christoph Dangel; cello)
The Antonio Vivaldi Sonatas (RV 40-47) for Cello and Basso Continuo are not scarce on disc but surprisingly underrepresented in performance. There are more than a dozen recordings available, nearly all following the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) notions. These pieces are substantial enough for a professional ensemble, while still offering the amateur a rewarding ratio of beauty to technical difficulty. (Several of the slow movement are even easy enough for a beginner). Dating from between 1720 to 1730, according to the informative liner notes, they were published in Paris unbeknownst to Vivaldi. The Venetian manuscript which still survives was presumably smuggled out by someone close to the composer.
In this rendition, Jean-Guihen Queyras performs on his anonymous 1690 Milanese cello, an instrument I first encountered on his terrific Haydn cello concerto recording from a decade ago. The ensemble features a few new wrinkles; Michael Behringer switches between a sweet-sounding chamber organ, heard in a delightful duo on the Sonatano 1 in B flat and a harpsichord, which tends to be higher in the mix but is most flatteringly captured by the impeccable HM engineers. Lee Santana adds a theorbo, just a bit deeper and darker than the lute used in most of the recordings. A second cello enters in places which thickens the texture and pushes the ensemble to that recognizable Baroque bustle, mostly absent from these uncharacteristically restrained pieces. In fact, two cellos play an eerie duo on the penultimate track, sounding like the Viol duos of Marin Marais or Saint-Colombe.
With six sonatas on offer, the shifts in texture and depth presented by the accompanying instruments is most pleasant. Queyras has been Harmonia mundi’s top shelf cellist for some time now and this recording demonstrates why. His phrasing and tonal quality achieve an immediate effect of lyrical conviction. He balances the passionate orphic singer side of his personality with a technical precision, occasionally even a cerebral coolness, which aims for clarity when he finds himself in ambiguous territory (There is none of that here, however. For that you should check out his Kurtag, Britten or Bach.)
Those who are unfamiliar with these works should not expect the same world as the Vivaldi concertos, which aim for a thrill a minute, a roller-coaster ride on fleet wheels of hard-swinging 16th notes. In contrast, these works are more conversational. Sobriety approaches melancholy on more than one Largo. Lyrical effusions alternate with comic high spirits, but overall the mood is inward looking.
Highlights for me are the passages in which the theorbo steps in front of the harpsichord as in the Largo of the third Sonata, adding a delicacy that reminds one of the French composers of Chamber Music for the Sun King. The less compelling moments stem from a sort of sonic indigestion. For example, on the Largo of the fourth sonata, the theme is so sleepy that the extra cello and the hovering organ induce feelings of lethargy. Perhaps this sonata in particular was written for a student; it stands to the others as Bach’s first cello suite does to his other six, a pedagogical primer.
Overall, I vastly prefer this recording to that of Anner Byslma, the HIP baroque cello pioneer, and the recorded sound is in a different league from the 1989 recording by Christopher Coin (on his incomparable Stradivarius). Unless you already own an earlier recording on the same label by Roel Dieltiens, this recording is indispensable for all lovers of Baroque chamber music.