Patrick Gary noted of Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s performances on an earlier recording of Chants Juifs pour violoncelle et piano that they were ‘emotionally charged throughout’ (BMG France 74321 425332, now Naïve V5218 – see review.) He recommended that CD with a slight reservation: “If there is a complaint to be made of the album, it would be that there is such a tendency to gravitate toward the more serious or sombre melodies ... a bit too much emphasis on the heavy-laden composers. If there were just one or two more moments of levity or exuberance the listener would be less exhausted at the end of the experience.”
I’m sorry to say that the same reservation applies even more to the new recording on which, sometimes accompanied by two other cellists for good measure, Wieder-Atherton lays the same treatment on some of the most tear-laden madrigals of Monteverdi, only lightly seasoned with works by Giacinto Scelsi – his music, too, is generally pretty emotive, though it has its lighter moments. The very serious photograph of Ms Wieder-Atherton in a black dress on the cover is all too indicative of the contents.
Scelsi’s music is likely to be an unknown factor for most listeners, so it’s useful that details of his œuvre are included in the booklet. Between 1957 and 1967 he composed a large-scale work, The Three Ages of Man, a trilogy consisting of Triphon, Dithom and Ygghur, of which sections are performed on the CD. His music has a timeless quality – no subscription to any ‘movements’ – so that it blends well with the Monteverdi transcriptions. Composed for an electronic instrument, the ondoline, it seems equally well suited to the cello. The theme of life and time which runs through this music holds the programme together, hence the ‘Vita’ of the title. I’m not sure, however, that I shall be returning to it very often.
The Monteverdi works, transcribed by Wieder-Atherton herself and Frank Krawczyk, sometimes in tandem, are not chosen at random: they and the Scelsi items are given a biography in Wieder-Atherton’s notes, featuring the life of Angel (Scelsi) and Angioletta, who features in a Monteverdi madrigal. I hardly think that Monteverdi intended us to regard vaga Angioletta (charming Angioletta) as a real person – she’s a type, even an archetype. Some texts even print the name in lower case: angioletta, an angelic girl. The ‘biography’ constructed in the notes is therefore little more than a peg on which to hang the collection. Dragging in a brief extract from Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the most dramatic of Monteverdi’s madrigals from his highly dramatic eighth book and concentrating only on its melancholy elements to round off the programme seems to me especially perverse.
Everything here is beautifully played and well recorded and the notes in the booklet make clear the thought process behind the enterprise, in French and English. If I find that enterprise rather pretentious and all the music on the CD too mournful, the fault is probably mine, though I imagine that many potential purchasers will be of like mind. They should certainly sample the goods first – there are some sound extracts on the Naïve home page. Those with access to the Naxos Music Library will be able to stream the CD and read the booklet there.
Lovers of Monteverdi who haven’t already made a bee-line for another Opus111/Naïve recording should do so without delay: the complete Eighth Book of Madrigals on an inexpensive 3-CD set directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini (OPS30435: Recording of the Month – see review). That’s a recording about which I have no reservations; the new disc is something with a more limited appeal.