Alfredo PIATTI (1822-1901)
Capriccio sopra un tema della Niobe di Pacini, Op. 22 [10:10]
Dodici Capricci, Op. 25 [44:07]
Soo Bae (cello)
rec. 12-14 September, 2008, St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada
NAXOS 8.570782 [54:16]

Alfredo Piatti is sometimes called the ‘Paganini of the cello’ and this seems appropriate. Born in 1822, he made his solo debut at the age of ten, composed his first cello concerto a few years later, and by middle age was playing in a string quartet with the dazzling all-star cast of Joseph Joachim, H.W. Ernst, and Henryk Wieniawski. Arthur Sullivan wrote a cello concerto for him. A better name might be the ‘Liszt of the cello’, though, Piatti is more firmly a romantic than Paganini was. In any case, Liszt invited the young Piatti to play a recital with him, encouraged him to move to Paris, and then generously gave him an Amati cello.

The solo works here are written mostly for teaching, but always entertaining and pleasing to the ear anyway. It’s a sign of how creative and compelling many of these romantic-era performers were that their solo compositions never flag in their melodic invention, refreshing variety of mood, and ear for storytelling. I’m also thinking of violinists like Beriot and even the later violist Lillian Fuchs. Piatti’s Capriccio on a theme from the opera Niobe is a huge pleasure, and though I couldn’t exactly hum the theme back to you, the fireworks are plenty and dazzling, especially in a final minute full of repeated notes, double-stops and harmonics. Keith Anderson’s liner-notes comment, “It need hardly be added that the piece makes heavy technical demands on a performer”, surely one of the understatements of the year.

The twelve Caprices also make for a satisfying listen. The first is a short, fleet prelude in semiquavers, before a six-minute-long slow work of a modest, slightly melancholy beauty. Highlights include the jaunty No. 3 and No. 7, marked ‘maestoso’ but rather more familiar than that, a bit like a virtuoso arpeggiated transcription of some light opera character’s comic aria. The central allegro of No. 11 is a fiendishly difficult aria with simultaneous bowed accompaniment, but for all that difficulty it falls very nicely on the ear, especially with playing as gentle as this.

Soo Bae is a Korean-born Canadian cellist who here gets the kind of star treatment Naxos almost never affords anybody. Her name is in capital letters on the spine, and there’s a glamorous photo on the cover and another one in the booklet; sorry, gents, but that’s a wedding ring on her finger. The attention is earned, though: her technique is impeccable, her range of expression outstanding, and the tone of her 1696 Stradivarius is always a joy to the ear. There’s a second of sour intonation in No. 6, but it’s the only blemish of any kind in this hour of great cello writing and playing. The tireless producers Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, Naxos specialists in solo recitals and chamber music, are up to their usual exemplary standards: warm, very present sound just distant enough to avoid what are euphemistically called ‘performance noises’. In other words, there’s nothing stopping cello enthusiasts from enjoying this very much.

Brian Reinhart

A real treat for fans of the cello: solo works imaginatively written and impeccably played.