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Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Six Concertos for Cello, Strings and Continuo (1737-8)
Concerto No. 1 in A [14:02]
Concerto No. 2 in D [15:34]
Concerto No. 3 in D minor [14:08]
Concerto No. 4 in A [16:57]
Concerto No. 5 in F minor [12:47]
Sinfonia Concertante (Concerto No. 6) in C minor [9:39]
Josephine Knight (cello), English Chamber Orchestra/Stephanie Gonley
rec. Champs Hill, Pulborough, Suffolk, 19-21 November 2003.
ASV CD DCA 1169 [43:42 + 41:53]


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Two CDs of quite delightful music, in excellent recorded sound.

Leonardo 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 the church.

Having 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.

In 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.

Leo was also the author of some interesting didactic works, including his Istituzioni o regole del contrappunto and Lezioni di canto fermo.

Leo’s 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.

Leo’s 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 music.

Josephine 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.

Glyn Pursglove





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