An opera by Agostino Steffani, performance of ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ and concerts by Vox Luminus, Quicksilver, Stile Antico, Phoebe Carrai & Friends, and ACRONYM were among the highlights of the 2019 Boston Early Music Festival.
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Out of Italy
Phoebe Carrai and Beiliang Zhu, baroque cellos; Charles Weaver, lute; Avi Stein, harpsichord;
By Andrew J. Sammut
This album’s title references the peripatetic lives of the composers heard here: Italian virtuosos of the 18th century who left “the home of music” and traveled Europe to seek better opportunities. Yet Phoebe Carrai and Beiliang Zhu are the real story. They have created a rich, extraordinarily performed program of Baroque and early Classical works — with “just” cellos.
Most of the names and music on this disc may be unfamiliar even to seasoned ears, beginning with Milanese violinist-cellist Giorgio Antoniotto and his Sonata in G, Op. 1, No. 8. The piece demonstrates craftsmanship with a passionate edge. It also showcases the vocalized tone and rhetorically-shaped phrases that Carrai and Zhu bring to the entire recital. Zhu is the soloist, yet her lead and Carrai’s cello in the continuo meld into brief but mellifluous duettini in the opening Adagio, and Carrai plays downright lyrical bass lines in the third movement.
Giacobbe Cervetto’s Divertimento in G, Op. 4, No. 1, for two unaccompanied cellos begins with an arioso dialogue and effectively differentiated sounds: Carrai slightly darker and broader, Zhu lighter and a bit more incisive. A beautiful but ominous Andantino follows; effects such as scraping lines over smoother strokes and flute-like harmonics give the fingerboards all the colors of a mixing board. It finishes with a courtly Tempo comodo bordering on comic, especially with a nervous middle section interrupting all the pleasantries.
Both cellists’ imaginative treatment of texture, articulation, and dynamics avoids the sewing-machine monotony that occasionally mars string displays from the period. For example, Neapolitan Salvatore Lanzetti was one of the most technically innovative cellists of the early 18th century. Yet Carrai digs into the moody Adagio cantabile of his Sonata in A minor, Op. 1, No. 5, with just the right amount of tension, and the central Allegro’s short repeated phrases come off as addictively agitated.
Carrai and Zhu, again unaccompanied, trade the lead on Giovanni Battista Cirri’s Duetto in G, Op. 8, No. 3. Starting with a genial Galant theme, the Allegro ma poco elegantly builds into a friendly game of one-upmanship. The virtuosity is all the more impressive given the players’ sense of classical restraint. The fussy buffa exchange in the concluding Rondo, contrasted with a noble yet still understated middle section, is played with laser focus as well as humor.
The album also features surprising selections by the better-known names: Carrai by turns plaintive, rocketing, comforting, and playful in Geminiani’s Sonata in F, Op. 5, No. 5; Zhu interpreting Vivaldi’s Corellian Sonata No. 6 in B flat, RV 46, with a lush voice, folksy lilt, and nimble passagi (plus a beautiful spot when the continuo drops out and the two cellos “sing” together).
Boccherini’s Sonata in C, G17, is in the composer’s usual easygoing style, with a mysterious second movement and gracefully oscillating close. Another work for two cellos without continuo, it features a more definite division between Zhu’s lead and Carrai’s accompaniment. Like Cirri’s piece, other players might pass this off as simply light, polite stuff. These musicians approach it with conviction and without overwhelming its sweetness.
Harpsichordist Avi Stein and lutenist Charles Weaver provide sturdy rhythmic and harmonic support that keeps the focus on the cellists. Stein plays a golden-toned instrument that is appropriately dry for these Italian works yet never merely sprinkles chords. In the second movement of Vivaldi’ sonata, the lute’s strums and plucks have the impact of a snare drum. The acoustics at Battell Chapel in Norfolk, CT, and the engineering capture it all, up-close and personal.
Zhu studied with Carrai at Juilliard. They combine the warmth of the best student-teacher relationships with the power and sensitivity of two peers. This disc is music making at its purest.
Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and hot jazz for All About Jazz, Boston Classical Review, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America and the IAJRC Journal as well as his own blog. He lives in Cambridge, MA.
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
House of Time
House of Time 888295612456
By Jeremy Reynolds
CD Review — At home in New York City’s finest churches and coffee houses, the period instrument ensemble House of Time has quickly built a reputation for versatility and virtuosity. Now in their fifth year as an ensemble, House of Time’s musicians — faculty members and alumni from Juilliard and Curtis — this season have appeared in San Diego, the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, and at festivals and venues around New York.
To date, the ensemble has released two albums on its own label, both live recordings: a 2015 disc of Couperin’s Apothéose de Lully and “La Françoise” from Les Nations paired with Marais’ La Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviéve du Mont; and a reimagined version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for chamber ensemble alongside the composer’s Chamber Concerto in G Minor, RV 107, recorded in 2017. (House of Time can be seen performing “Summer” on YouTube here and “Autumn” here.)
The Vivaldi recording is superb, showcasing the full prowess of oboist and recorder player Gonzalo X. Ruiz, who devised the transcription. He often takes up the solo violin line, making the whizzing scales and broken chords sound effortless. Vivaldi’s Seasons work well for chamber ensemble: the wind instruments add warmth and color to a piece bleached of some of its potency through overuse. This fresh take also features violinist Tatiana Daubek, blazing through her solos with precision. Standout moments include the properly shivery opening to the first movement of “Winter,” the sultry fury of the finale of “Summer,” and the languid adagio movement of “Autumn.”
The chamber concerto comes across as an afterthought on the album. But it’s well executed, a pleasant Vivaldi dessert after the feast that is his Seasons.
The album represents a step forward from House of Time’s 2015 offering of Couperin and Marais. Couperin’s 15-movement Apothéose de Lully is replete with gestures synthesizing French and Italian styles, as was becoming standard in the early 18th century. Each movement has a title colorfully translated by House of Time, such as “Lully is at the Elysian Fields Jamming with the Musical Spirits” and “Subterranean Grumblings of…Lesser Composers.”
The ensemble is tight throughout. Guest baroque flutist Stephen Schultz’s playing is particularly excellent at the start of the sixth movement (“Lully is Raised up to Parnassus”), a subtle sprightliness bringing the simple, ascending lines to life.
The other Couperin on the album, “La Françoise,” also includes strong performances from all members, though the Courante and Sarabande movements lack energy and trend too far towards “stately.”
Marais’ La Sonnerie is a delight, easily the album’s highlight. Harpsichordist Avi Stein anchors the music with authoritative continuo playing, managing to propel the piece throughout its nearly eight-minute length. Viola da gamba player Beiliang Zhu and violinist Daubek are in perfect sync, sinuously twining their contrapuntal lines among the repetitive bass in the continuo.
Both albums feature fine playing, but the more recent disc highlights the ensemble’s forward momentum. Their cohesiveness and creativity in the Vivaldi project is captivating, a new twist on an age-old treasure. Both discs are available on Amazon.com, and House of Time is offering the The Four Seasons as a touring program throughout the 2017-18 season.
Jeremy Reynolds is classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A former clarinetist and radio announcer, he has written about music for ClevelandClassical.com, Symphony Magazine, Early Music America Magazine, Charleston’s Post and Courier, and other publications.