Two CDs of quite delightful music, in excellent recorded sound.
Leo was a very important figure in the musical life of Naples
in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. His fame was –
and is – largely the product of his work for the theatre and
studied with Francesco Nicola Fago at the Conservatorio S. Maria
della Pietà dei Turchini in Naples, Leo soon established himself
as an important composer. His first opera, Il Pisistrato,
was produced in 1714. More or less consistently from then, he
wrote operas in response to commissions from the theatres of
Naples, and also from theatres in Venice, Rome, Milan and Turin.
He wrote more than fifty operas, some of them making an important
contribution to the evolution of commedia musicale in
Naples, while others were more ‘serious’ works, a number of
them setting libretti by Metastasio.
1713 he had become maestro di cappella to the Marchese
Stella, succeeding Alessandro Scarlatti, and organist of the
viceroyal chapel. His sacred compositions – oratorios, cantatas,
offertories, antiphons, six masses, etc – were much admired.
Modern recordings (e.g. those by Christophe Rousset and Les
Talens Lyriques on Decca and by the Choir of Gonville and Caius,
directed by Geoffrey Webber on ASV Gaudeamus) have shown that
they retain their power to move, combining complex contrapuntal
writing with emotional range and depth.
was also the author of some interesting didactic works, including
his Istituzioni o regole del contrappunto and
Lezioni di canto fermo.
contribution to the purely instrumental repertoire was slight.
It incudes some trios for flute and some keyboard toccatas.
The most substantial of Leo’s instrumental work is to be found
in these admirable six concertos for cello, strings and continuo.
Here they are played in the edition prepared by Pietro Spada.
They have been recorded a few times – by Hidemi Suzuki on BIS,
by Arturo Bonucci on Arts, by Anner Bylsma on Atma and by Julius
Berger in a Brilliant Classics box called Classical Cello
Concertos. I haven’t heard all of these versions, but my
suspicion is that Josephine Knight and the English Chamber Orchestra
have nothing to fear from any comparisons.
concertos for cello were written after those by Vivaldi, but
predate those of C.P.E. Bach, Haydn and Boccherini. Unlike Vivaldi’s
usual three movement structure, five of Leo’s concertos are
in four movements, the exception being No.2, in five movements.
All begin with an andante and all close with an allegro. Many
of the finest movements have a distinctly ‘vocal’ quality and
Josephine Knight’s lyrical playing and rich tone colours do
full justice to this. The elegant andantino grazioso
which opens the first concerto sets the tone for much of what
follows, graceful, galant and charming; the third movement
of that first concerto, marked larghetto a mezza voce,
is a fine example of Leo’s lyricism, a quality very evident
in later movements such as the largo of no.5 or the gentleness
of no.3’s third movement (‘amoroso’). Nor does Leo disappoint
in his quicker movements; the rapid contrapuntal interplay of
the second movement molto presto in no.6 is exhilarating,
as is the witty second movement allegro of no.4. But there are
too many pleasures, too many highlights, for them all to be
enumerated here. So much so, that it is a cause for serious
regret that Leo should have written so relatively little orchestral
Knight’s 1709 Stradivarius is a gorgeously-toned instrument,very
well captured by the recording, and the ECO are on excellent form
throughout. Warmly and unhesitatingly recommended.