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The Birth of the Cello
Giambattista degli ANTONII (c.1640-after 1696)
Ricercati (1687): I [2:18]; II [4:38]; III [ 3:41]; IV [3:41]; V [4:27]; VI [5:31]; VII [3:46]; VIII [4:11]; IX [2:32]; X [4:01]; XI [3:16]; XII [4:42]
Domenico GABRIELLI (1651-1690)
Ricercari (c.1689): I [2:23]; II [7:39]; III [ 3:06]; IV [5:23]; V [1:52]; VI [3:05]; VII [5:32]
Julius Berger (cello)
rec. Alte Kirche, Boswil, Switzerland, 28-30 May, 2-4 July 2007
SOLO MUSICA SM112 [74:45]
Experience Classicsonline

This is rather special. Though it sounds too much like the language of advertising to say it, this does have very good claims to present us with the first solo works for cello played on the world’s oldest surviving cello.

The German cellist Julius Berger has performed and recorded across much of the repertoire for his instrument; he has been justly praised for recordings that range from Boccherini to Cage, from Schumann to Gubaidulina. Here he turns his attention to music from the very beginnings of the instrument’s history. Cellos were being made by the mid 1500s; one of the first great craftsmen to make cellos (and the earliest whose name we know) was Andrea Amati, born about 1505 in Cremona. It is on one of Amati’s instruments that Berger performs, an instrument which was created in response to a commission (for 38 stringed instruments) Amati received from Charles IX of France in 1566. This specific instrument’s history can be traced – with gaps – from then until now. It is an instrument with an extraordinary beauty of tone, particularly in the lower strings.

Here this Amati cello is deployed in performances of ricercari by the two earliest writers for solo cello whose work survives – Gianbattista Degli Antonii and Domenico Gabrielli. Both composers were born in Bologna and both largely made their careers there. Both benefited from the patronage of Prince Francesco II d’Este (1660-1694) of Modena, a music lover who played the cello himself.

Antonii was a choirmaster and organist, a member of the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. He also played and taught the cello and his collection of ricercari was published in 1687, with a dedication to Francesco II.

Gabrielli (who seems to have been unrelated to the more famous Gabriellis of Venice) was also a member of the Accademic Filarmonica – indeed he became its President in 1683. as a composer he wrote operas and sacred music and a good deal of chamber music. He was famous as one of the first virtuosi of the cello. His ricercari for the instrument survive in manuscript (preserved in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena).

These early solo works for the cello occasionally frustrate and abundantly excite (for me delight far outweighs the occasional stretch of relative banality). Of Antonii’s ricercari one suspects that some were primarily teaching aids or pieces designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the instrument; sometimes relatively extended scalar passages defy even Berger’s ability to make the music genuinely gripping. But the best – I was particularly struck by nos. 4, 9 (with several unexpected leaps) and 10 (which has something of the kind of multi-voiced writing we associate with Bach’s later writing for unaccompanied cello or violin) – are eminently good listening and certainly deserve to be better known.

Gabrielli’s seven ricercari are rather more various in design and emotion, more obviously intended for public performance. Rhythmic patterns shift and coalesce, double and triple stops produce some subtle and complex effects. Each of these pieces has its own distinctive charms and some of them pack a fair expressive punch.

This CD has obvious value as historical documentation. But it is more than just that. There may be one or two longueurs in the work by Antonii, but for the most part this is music which remains thoroughly alive, thoroughly capable of speaking to us now. This is especially so when played with the technique, intelligence and vivacity which Julius Berger brings to the task and when heard (in well recorded sound) on a fascinating instrument. He luxury – and informativeness – of the packaging is an additional bonus. This CD has already tempted me into many repeat listenings – and it gets more fascinating with each hearing!

Glyn Pursglove

see also Review by Brian Wilson



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