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Music Review: Antonio Vivaldi – Complete Cello Sonatas – Ophelie Gaillard

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Antonio Vivaldi is best known for his violin compositions. Concertos, concertos, concertos, Vivaldi wrote scores of them. The Red Priest also devoted considerable attention to the violin’s larger sibling — the cello — providing her some of the most beautiful baroque writing this side of Bach. Vivaldi wrote almost 30 concertos for the cello. Productive as he was, Vivaldi did manage to keep the number of cello sonatas to nine. That is a manageable number better suited for complete recorded collections than most other Vivaldi instrumental assemblies. Despite this, recordings of the complete cello sonatas are sparse, making Ophelie Gaillard’s set with Pulcinella that much more important.

First, we may need a bit of definition. A concerto is typically a composition where one (and sometimes more) solo instrument is emphasized with the support of an orchestra. The modern concept of the concerto evolved from the Baroque concerto grosso, where a small group of instruments, rather than a singe one, is contrasted with the larger orchestra.

In contrast, a sonata broadly indicates a composition played as opposed to sung (cantata). The term sonata, like concerto, evolved considerably prior to the Classical period, actually defining various forms. Baroque musical theorists applied sonata to a range of compositions types, including those for solo instruments such to those for groups of instruments, supported by a continuo, or bass instrument.

Vivaldi’s nine cello concertos, of course, follow the Baroque mode with the exception that the continuo is a bit larger than only a harpsichord, organ, bass, or viola da gamba. These sonatas in definition exist somewhere between the Baroque concerto and sonata. For these cello pieces, Vivaldi favored a four-movement structure with slow-fast-slow-fast tempi scheme.

What makes Vivaldi’s cello sonatas unique in his musical corpus is the thoughtful and brooding first and third movements he composed. The cello as a low string instrument is well suited to convey a variety of contemplative moods, from deep melancholy to pious adoration. Cellist Ophelie Gaillard, aided by her crack “continuo” Pulcinella, provides an acutely sharp reflective surface for Vivaldi’s nuanced slow movements. Favoring period instruments on which to perform, Ophelie Gaillard plays a Francesco Goffriller cello constructed in 1737, loaned to her by the French Banking concern, CIC.

For listeners restricted to Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons), the cello sonatas will come as a jolting surprise. Vivaldi crafted lace-like slow opening and third movements resembling very little the pyrotechnics displayed in his many violin pieces. This is most apparent in the minor-key sonatas (Nos. 2, 3, 5, 7, 9). Melancholy is not the description for these slow movements; thoughtful faith may be better. Vivaldi slows the listener down for some hands-on-knees considerationt. Sonata No. 5 in e minor’s third, slow movement is reflectively beautiful and quite unlike the Vivaldi most are familiar with. This is not the Vivaldi of L'estro Armonico. The faster movements retain this reflective mood, yet will sound much more familiar to the casual Vivaldi listener.

There are precious few complete collections of these cello pieces. Only one other collection appears available: the very fine David Watkin/Helen Gough Hyperion recording, originally released in 1995. The edge the Gaillard release has is basically technological. Recent improvements in capturing period instruments have vastly improved the “sonics” of such recordings. The harsh, acerbic tone of earlier period instrument recordings has been softened, improving the “warmth” to perfection, making them preferable to previously released collections. The second advantage of the Gaillard performances over the Watkin/Gough sonatas is the two-disc package containing one CD/DVD with video of Gaillard and her Pulcinella in action.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Laraine

    I have always preferred the Vivaldi cello sonatas to The Four Seasons. My other favourite Vivaldi are the Concerti da Camera. Yes, cellists like Casals and Rostropovich didn’t know what they were missing. It really surprises me that Casals went to all the bother to resurrect the Bach solo cello suites but didn’t seem to give a thought to these wonderfully melodious Vivaldi works.