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The Explore Catalogue

Benedetto MARCELLO (1686-1739)
Six Cello Sonatas: No. 1 in F major [8:07]; No.2 in E minor [6:46]; No.3 in A minor [6:04]; No.4 in G minor [6:53]; No.5 in C major [6:49]; No.6 in G major [6:03]
Anthony Pleeth (cello)
Christopher Hogwood (harpsichord); Richard Webb (cello continuo)
rec. March 1978, Rosslyn Hill Unitarian chapel, London. ADD.
EXPLORE EXP0012 [43:11]

Benedetto Marcello and his older brother Alessandro (born 1669) were important presences in the musical life of Venice in the first half of the seventeenth century. Neither was a full-time composer; they were, in a wholly non-deprecatory sense, dilettanti – to be counted amongst those "Personages whose [musical] talents are celebrated whether they are regarded as professors or Diletanti" as Burney put it in his General History of Music. The family of the Marcello had a place amongst the Venetian nobility. Both brothers held prominent state positions. Benedetto worked as a lawyer and a magistrate. In 1707 he was chosen (by lot) to serve on the Grand Council of the Republic; from 1730 to 1737 he was Governor of Pola (Pula in modern Croatia) and in 1738 he was made Chamberlain of Brescia. In his youth he had, like any good gentleman, received a musical training. But in his case such matters went well beyond mere polite accomplishment; he seems to have studied with both Franceso Gasparini and Antonio Lotti. He became a member of both the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna and the Accademia dell’Arcadia in Rome. He wrote a good deal of music, both vocal and instrumental, both secular and sacred – as demonstrated in the standard reference work, Eleanor Selfridge-Field’s admirable The Works of Benedetto and Alessandro Marcello: A Thematic Catalogue (O.U.P., 1990). He was also an accomplished man of letters, writing more than one operatic libretto and the marvellous Il Teatro alla Moda, a satire on Venetian opera and operatic culture, first published around 1720. This is full of witty observation – and some serious, if ironic, comments. Readers who have access to back issues of The Musical Quarterly are strongly urged to look out the volume for 1948, which contains a full translation by Reinhard Pauly. I cannot resist one quotation, from Marcello’s ‘advice’ to the opera composer: "He must not allow himself to read the entire libretto, as that might confuse him. Rather he should compose it verse by verse and insist immediately that all arias be written over [by the librettist]. This is the only way in which he will be able to utilize all the melodies that had come into his head during the summer. But if the words to these arias should again fail to fit the notes properly – and that happens most commonly – he will continue to harass the librettist until the latter satisfies himself completely".

In short, Marcello was a cultured, intelligent man, not short of patrician self-confidence. These qualities are evident in his six Cello Sonatas, rewardingly played on this first reissue on CD of a performance which originally appeared on LP (Decca DSLO 546). The Cello Sonatas were probably written and first published in the 1710s, though no early Venetian edition seems yet to have been discovered. John Walsh published an edition in London in 1732; another appeared in Paris in 1735.

All six of the sonatas are in the conventional sonata da chiesa form – four movements, slow-quick-slow-quick. Many of the slow movements have beautiful arioso melodies, often characterised by a quiet, dignified melancholy; in the quicker movements the liveliness of manner is never so extreme as to threaten the prevailing aristocratic seemliness of demeanour. This is elegant, cool music, which yet finds room for moments of almost-passionate expressiveness. Anthony Pleeth seems to me to capture these qualities very well indeed. He plays a David Rubio copy of a 1732 Stradivarius and the instrument is perfectly suited to this music. Throughout, Pleeth’s beautifully judged playing is well supported by the intelligent and astute continuo work of Hogwood and Webb. Of course there are aspects of baroque performance practise about which there might be questions raised – ideas on such matters never cease to be contentious. But given the perceptive sympathy which governs the playing of Pleeth and his colleagues, such questions are very much of secondary importance; this may not – in detail – be the only way of playing these sonatas; but it is certainly a very good way, aesthetically coherent and musically satisfying.

The recorded sound is perfectly listenable, without having quite the vivacity and colour we might now demand on a new recording; there are track divisions only for each sonata, not for each movement; the booklet notes are brief; the playing time is decidedly brief. But for all that, this is a CD that anyone with a love of the Venetian baroque will surely want, both for its own merits and because there don’t appear to be any rival recordings of all six of these fine sonatas.

Glyn Pursglove

The Explore Catalogue


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