La Voce del Violoncello (CD review)

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:


1 comment:

  1. ArkivMusic expects to have this disk back in stock on February 25, 2014.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa