in: Reviews

August 1, 2014

Bass Sounds and More


Emily Davidson (E. Davidson photo)

Emily Davidson (E. Davidson photo)

Solo cellist Emily Davidson gave the third and final presentation of “Bass Sounds,” Thursday night at Emmanuel Church’s Lindsey Chapel in Boston; it was also the final program in this summer’s concert series sponsored by the Society for Historically Informed Performance (SoHIP). Also played on Tuesday in Weston and on Wednesday in Andover, the performances featured J. S. Bach’s Second Suite in D Minor together with works by one younger and two older contemporaries.

Ricercars (one each) by the 17th-century Bolognese cellist-composers Domenico Gabrielli and Giovanni Battista degli Antonii preceded the Bach suite on the first half of the program. The second half was devoted to four of the eleven capricci by Joseph Marie Clément dall’Abaco, son of the better-known Veronese string player and composer Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco. Davidson’s recordings of all these pieces can be heard on two CDs, “Bass Sounds” and “Bass Sounds Evolved,” which can be purchased or downloaded here.

A recital of unaccompanied cello music is potentially either dull or confusing to listeners not fascinated by the instrument or knowledgeable about the music. But Davidson’s playing, in the present-day tradition of Baroque performance, was clear, successfully projecting the meter even when taking expressive liberties of the type all these pieces demand, though imprecise intonation was one persistent problem. Her 18th-century instrument nevertheless sounded very well in the resonant chapel space (at least up front; an electric fan and an open door to the street, necessary here in the summer, probably competed with the cello toward the back of the room).

The two 17th-century ricercars were played with plenty of spirit and variety of character from one phrase to the next—almost enough to convince me that they really were meant for cello without harpsichord or organ accompaniment, something that is less certain than generally assumed. Gabrielli—not to be confused with the older Venetian composers Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (one letter el)—wrote more interesting solo cello parts in his opera arias and trumpet sinfonias than this first ricercar from his set of seven, dated 1689 in their sole manuscript source. The Antonii work, on the other hand, no. 10 from his opus 1 of 1687, is a more extended composition recalling older multisectional canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli, among others. Although not once requiring chordal playing by the cellist, its phraseology imitates that of a fugue. I wonder whether it could not be performed to project that fact a little more clearly—perhaps by playing the various statements of the theme (which usually lie on different strings) with more distinct colors, or by separating them a little more deliberately from one another, using the type of minuscule phrasing pauses that Davidson employed so effectively in the Bach suite and elsewhere.

The suite was, of course, the main event. Bach’s cello suites are now thought to have possibly originated before the dates 1717–23 given in the program; they have much in common with cello parts in some of the arias from cantatas composed previously, at Weimar. The relatively concise but darkly expressive D-minor suite calls for free yet disciplined performance of its improvisatory prelude. It also demands attention to the expressive shocks and surprises implicit in the jagged melodic lines and dissonant harmonies of the five dances that follow (six if you count both minuets). For me the high points were the expressive sarabande and first minuet, in part because here the numerous chords were played without the “modern” accentuation of the top note (or two) that occasionally intruded elsewhere, preventing the full resonance of the instrument to be heard. The more relaxed ambience of these movements allowed the music to take its own time, something that might be equally effective in the quicker dances as well.

I doubt I was the only one of the two dozen or so listeners to find dall’Abaco’s capricci the most interesting portion of the program. Published for the first time less than ten years ago, from a single 18th-century manuscript copy, the pieces are not yet well known even to specialists. Davidson made a convincing case for them, choosing a nicely varied selection in intelligently related keys and of diverse characters. Unlike the older capricci of Locatelli and the later ones of Paganini for violin, these are well-mannered pieces resembling movements from the sonatas that were being written by the dozen around the middle of the eighteenth century, during what we think of as the transition from Baroque to Classical style. (Although his father was a significant younger contemporary of Corelli, dall’Abaco lived until 1805).

The capricci are bland harmonically, yet they are just attractive enough melodically and sufficiently inventive in their use of the instrument to be engaging, despite dall’Abaco’s tendency to repeat everything from short phrases to entire sections at least one too many times. Some of these repetitions seem to call out for variations of the type that 18th-century musicians routinely improvised. Davidson offered occasional embellishments of her own, but these rather slight pieces could benefit from much more variation—of dynamics and bow strokes as well as notes—particularly when all the indicated repeats are played, as was the case here. Again I found a slow movement (Capriccio 7) most interesting. Here dall’Abaco alludes to his father’s style, writing chords that in general were played with good intonation and with attention to their Corelliesque harmony, which alternates between dissonant suspensions and their resolutions.

Capriccio no. 1 (played third) might have gone a little faster and less freely. Perhaps the slow tempo was the reason why only in this piece did Abaco’s refusal to say anything less than twice threaten to grow tiresome. On the other hand, Capriccio no. 8, the one example in French style—it is a chaconne en rondeau almost such as Rameau might have composed—went rather more quickly than its expressive secondary themes suggested to me. But the main idea proved quite catchy at this speed, bringing the concert and the season to a pleasant conclusion.

Once again SoHIP deserves thanks and congratulations for giving us the opportunity to hear rare repertory imaginatively programmed by emerging artists. I do wonder, however, whether the “historically informed” part of the name could be more than a fancy euphemsim for the now unfashionable adjectives “period” or “authentic.” At this program the audience was given very little information, historical or otherwise, about the music or its performance, and I am not sure that what was offered was entirely accurate.

More important, for anyone aware of the history of the cello and cello playing, the repertory heard on this program raises a burning question: for what instruments, exactly, were these pieces composed, and how were they held? Davidson played the standard “Baroque” cello of today, but it’s become quite clear in recent years that the older Italian composers Gabrielli and degl’Antonii probably wrote for and played somewhat smaller instruments held like a violin or viola. The younger dall’Abaco, on the other hand, lived into an era when many cellists were using endpins, as they do today, rather than cradling them between the legs.

It would wonderful to see more performances that are genuinely “informed” by current historical thinking, which contemplates things that are often quite different from what is still taught and applied in practice by many musicians, including early-music specialists. The notion of a single “Baroque” style of music or version of an instrument is one of those things. There is nothing wrong with playing music such as we heard Thursday night on one instrument, if that is how the player performs it best. But it would be exciting and illuminating to hear performances informed by current thought, challenging familiar ideas of this music by presenting the older works, for example, on a cello held on the arm (it’s hard to believe this is possible until you see paintings, which are not rare, showing big stringed instruments played in this manner).

There was, of course, a time not so long ago when the mere sight of a menagerie of recorders or a “chorus” of one singer per part would excite or provoke. But we still have much to discover about early music and its performance. I hope that SoHIP will continue to help listeners and performers do just that.

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

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