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Cello Stories: The Cello in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Bruno Cocset (cello), Les Basses Réunies
Book (167 pages) with essay by Marc Vanscheeuwijck; 13 illustrations
rec. 1998-2013 in France & Switzerland
ALPHA 890 [5 CDs: 5hrs 52mins]

This package, featuring the French early music cellist Bruno Cocset (born 1963) and his group Les Basses Réunies, arouses pleasurable anticipation which is only partially fulfilled. Most of the recordings have been previously issued on various Alpha CDs, but works by Diego Ortiz, Vincenzo Bonizzi, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Domenico Galli, Benedetto Marcello and Giovanni Battista Cirri were recorded specially for this set. The playing is mostly excellent and often delightful, while the recording quality is always listenable.

The premise behind the set is that, over the years, the luthier Charles Riché has made nine instruments for Cocset of which one, a copy of the ‘Cristiani’ Strad, is no longer in his possession. They include a tenor violin after a painting by Bartolomeo Bettera; a large bass violin ‘alla bastarda’ in G, after a member of the Amati family; a bass violin in B flat, after the famous Brescian maker Gasparo da Salò; a cello known as the ‘Aubade’; a tenor violin ‘alla bastarda’ after one of the Amatis; a viola, the ‘Bettera’, taken presumably from the same Bettera painting; and a concertante cello, whatever that means, the ‘Boccherini’. In addition Cocset plays a bass violin in B flat by Alain Meyer, after an instrument in the Brussels instruments museum; and a genuine old instrument, an anonymous French early eighteenth-century tenor cello, tuned a fifth higher than usual.

The essay by Marc Vanscheeuwijck, which I find difficult to read and digest, goes into great detail on all the sizes and shapes of bass instrument in the two centuries under review, but we are given no idea as to what they looked like – or what the Riché instruments look like. A few old paintings are reproduced but, would you believe, not the Bettera picture. Vanscheeuwijck’s text is not linked to the recordings, and often we are not told which instrument Cocset is using for a particular work. Instead of printing the details appertaining to each work after the title and movement titles, the producers make us follow a separate key, for which we have to turn over several pages. Often I end up none the wiser.

This enterprise cries out for at least one DVD, on which Cocset could demonstrate each instrument, its size in relation to the others, and how he plays it. Ideally the whole set would be on DVD. As it is, frustrations mount as you try to work out what is going on. I have to say that, probably because a single soloist is involved, bending each instrument to his will, the various fiddles sound much the same to me.

Disc 1 mainly consists of Frescobaldi Canzonas. A cornett is used for two of them – a nice effect – and a claviorganum is used as an alternative to the harpsichord. Continuo instruments include theorbo and Baroque harp. Disc 2 has Benedetto Marcello, Vivaldi and Barrière, characterfully played. A very light vibrato is used with discretion but in the second of three Vivaldi sonatas, I twice caught Cocset adjusting his vibrato in the middle of a note.

Discs 3 and 4 are all Bach. Two of the gamba sonatas are done with harpsichord and one with organ, which makes for variety. Although Cocset has recorded all the Bach solo Suites, there is room for only the Third, Fifth and Sixth, with single movements from the other three. Mostly they are stylishly done, although I cannot understand why Cocset plays the Sarabande of the Fourth with such a halting gait. An unfortunate collateral problem is the loud fingerboard noise in the faster movements of the Suites: is it a side-effect of using gut strings? I hear it on Steven Isserlis’s Hyperion discs of the Suites too, though not so loud. Some arrangements of chorale preludes are quite pleasant, although ‘Wachet auf’, BWV 645, is rather robotically delivered.

Disc 5 brings some of the best playing, in music by Geminiani, Cirri and Boccherini, in fact if anyone is thinking that they might like to buy just one CD by Cocset, I suspect the programme of Boccherini sonatas and concertos (Alpha 084) will be the best, based on the two sonatas and one concerto here. The four Geminiani pieces are a little tiring on the ear, as Cocset produces a predominantly dark tone with virtually no vibrato. He allows himself just a bit more vibrato in the Boccherini works, which are not provided with Gérard numbers – I have identified the two sonatas as G565 and G17. These works often take the cello up very high, reflecting the composer’s exceptional virtuosity. In his splendid complete set of the sonatas (Brilliant Classics 93784), Luigi Puxeddu uses no vibrato and has just a second cello in support. Cocset employs a varied basso continuo group. The central Largo of G565 is beautifully played and presents a mystery: Cocset’s edition has a fast central section and a final Adagio section, while Puxeddu plays just the Largo section. The G major Concerto can be identified as G480 – the abominable Butcher of Boccherini, Friedrich Grützmacher the Elder, stole its Adagio for his mutilated version of the B flat Concerto, G482. Cocset plays the outer movements of G480 faster, and with more panache, than Isserlis did in his fine Virgin Classics performance.

The problems with the set begin even before you start listening. Discs 1 and 5, housed in envelopes glued to the hard covers, can be removed only with a fair amount of wrestling, which involves putting fingerprints on the playing surface, and the other three discs are only marginally easier to access. Some companies who go in for this kind of book packaging provide a little slit at the bottom of each disc envelope, so that a piece of cardboard can be inserted, popping the disc out. Alpha have not been so helpful. It is one more aspect of a complete inability, on the part of the record company, to envisage how the set will be used by the average listener. The book housing the discs is about the same size as a DVD box, only a little thicker, so it can conveniently be stored with your DVDs.

Tully Potter


Bach, J S:

Viola da Gamba Sonatas Nos. 1-3, BWV1027-1029
Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV1009
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV1011
Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV1012
Barrière, J:
Sonata No. 6 in C minor, Book II
Sonata No. 6 in C minor, Book II
Sonata for 2 cellos, No 10 in G major
Boccherini:
SONATA IN B FLAT MAJOR, G565 (with bass)
Cello Sonata in C major, G. 17
Cirri, G B:
Cello Sonata No. 5 in C
Geminiani, F:
Trio Sonata No 5 in A minor after Op 1 No 11
Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 5 No. 2
Cello Sonata in B flat, Op. 5 No. 4
Marcello, B:
Sonata for 2 Cellos, Op. 2 No. 2
Vivaldi:
Cello Sonata in A minor, RV44
Cello Sonata in B flat major, RV47
Cello Sonata in E minor, RV40

 

 




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