Solo Works of the First Italian Cellist-Composers. Elinor Frey, baroque cello; Esteban La Rotta, theorbo and baroque guitar; Susie Napper, baroque cello. Passacaille 993.
As far as I can see, this 2013 release, La Voce del Violoncello (“The Voice of the Cello”), is only the third album from Canadian cellist Elinor Frey, and it’s the first one in which she goes it mostly alone. Although Ms. Frey may not yet be in the class of a Casals or a Rostropovich, she displays a commendable command of the cello and an obvious joy in playing the instrument that foretell a promising future.
As I’ve mentioned before, choosing what music to include on any album can be chancy. If you opt for popular items that you know the public enjoys, you risk going head-to-head with a catalogue full of formidable competition. If you choose to record more obscure, more modern, more experimental, or more avant-garde material, you risk not selling a disc. Here, in an album of solo works from the first Italian cellist-composers, Ms. Frey has chosen a reasonable middle ground. She has recorded twenty-three tracks representing some of the earliest-known compositions for the violoncello, following the genre over nearly seventy-five years from the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth, by which time the cello had become popular enough to spread throughout Europe and produce star performers of international repute. More important, the music Ms. Frey has chosen is accessible and charming, and she plays it expertly on an unnamed Klingenthatl-style baroque cello from the late-eighteenth century, accompanied on a few numbers by Esteban La Rotta, theorbo and baroque guitar, and Susie Napper, baroque cello.
Since Ms. Frey is just becoming known, a word about her: To quote from her biography, her honors include “the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholarship, where she studied baroque cello with Paulo Beschi in Como, Italy” and grants from the SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and the Canada Council for the Arts. She received a Doctor of Music degree in 2012 from McGill University and additional degrees from the Mannes College of Music and the Juilliard School. So, yes, she knows what she’s doing.
Ms. Frey begins this musical journey through the early baroque cello with Tromba a Basso solo by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694), only it’s not a solo since Mr. La Rotta supports her with a bass realization on the theorbo. If you’re not sure what a theorbo is, it’s a now obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. It produces a sound that complements the cello nicely. (I’ve gotten to know and enjoy the theorbo from my attendance at concerts by the Philharmonic Baroque, where my wife and I have become quite attentive to and appreciative of the theorbo playing.) Anyway, you can hear a moment of the Tromba a Basso solo below and get the idea. It’s a delightful work, delightfully performed.
Next, we hear two caprices by Giuseppe Maria Dall'Abaco (1710-1805), which sound a little more formal than the preceding Colombi piece yet have a sort of Bach-like feel to them. Ms. Frey invests them with a lively, rhythmic cadence that keeps our attention.
After that is a brief, anonymous sonata, followed by two toccatas by Francesco Paolo Suspriani (1678-1753). The sonata possesses a graceful lilt that makes it appear at once serious yet playful. Perhaps it's Ms. Frey's playing that imparts the latter quality. The Suspriani toccatas seem a little more solemn to me than I'd like, despite Ms. Frey's efforts to the contrary. Nevertheless, she ends the program with two more of Suspriani’s toccatas that close the show in fine, robust spirits.
And so it goes, with further pieces by Domenico Galli (1649-1697), Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1729), and Giulio Ruvo. Given the nature of the music and the early composition dates, you might expect a good deal of repetition or sameness, but Mr. Frey ensures that we take nothing for granted. Her style is continuously flexible and spirited, with an emphasis on creativity, clarity, and precision.
Among my favorite tracks on the disc were the aforementioned Tromba a Basso solo for its invention, plus Galli's Sonata No. 5 for its purely entertaining variations; Vitali's Passa Gali for its regal sophistication (and again its theorbo); Ruvo's folksy, lyrical dance numbers; and Vitali's Bergamasca, not only for Ms. Frey's playing but for the baroque guitar accompaniment.
I don't try to label albums as the best of anything because I've never been able to determine just what that means without sounding pompous or pretentious; however, I do know what I like, so I can say without hesitation what appeals to me. Come next January, I know I shall be listing La Voce del Violoncello among my favorite albums of the year.
Padraig Buttner-Schnirer recorded, edited, and mastered the disc for Passacaille Records, recording it at the Pollack Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec in 2012. The cello emerges cleanly defined, clear, and richly resonant, as do the accompanying instruments. The miking is relatively close, so the sound is big, yet there is a pleasant ambient air around the instruments as well, making them resound fully throughout the room. Indeed, it is this warm, resonant bloom that makes the sound so appealing, yet it in no way distracts from the lucidity of the instrumental sound.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: