Reveling in the Warm Light of Vivaldi’s Cello Sonatas

Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras has long brought his honest, communicative playing to works from the 17th to the 21st centuries. In his latest album, he’s turned to the deceptively simple Vivaldi cello sonatas, tapping into their haunting expressivity while keeping the dance alive, and it’s WCRB’s CD of the Week.

Vivaldi is known and loved for his hundreds of virtuosic concertos, including the hyper-famous Four Seasons. But when working in the smaller world of the sonata he writes fewer notes, careful to leave room for the silence to filter through. Vivaldi scholar Olivier Fourés tells the story of composer Johann Georg Pisendel who studied with Vivaldi and offered him a violin concerto for review. In keeping with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s dictum that “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to remove,” Vivaldi proceeded to take out half the notes.

Vivaldi’s cello sonatas bear that reverence for simplicity, and for cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, their soulful, lyrical, dancing presence has been a part of his life since he was a small child. His mother was an amateur pianist who loved playing Italian cello sonatas with a close friend, and Jean-Guihen remembers their special intimacy: “Vivaldi and Marcello whispered things in my ear before I even learned to talk!” The sonata scores lay around the house in Provençe, as much a part of every day as the Southern French cows and the flies.

The fifth sonata was the first he learned as a young student, so that’s where the recording begins. Using an anonymously-built Milanese cello of 1690, with gut strings and a baroque-style bow, Queyras homes in on the streams of sadness that run through Vivaldi’s slow movements, and he easily captures the lightness of touch that gives the propulsive movements their intimate quality – partly whispered, partly sung, and always danced.

Stunning moments that seem to belong to no particular age are everywhere. The two slithering voices in the third movement of the 6th Sonata (track 23) move in and out of one another’s space like dancers in a dream. The second movement of the 5th Sonata (track 2) bounds along with a signature Vivaldi propulsion, digging in to syncopations and reveling in the cello’s low notes. The A minor Sonata, No. 2 (Tracks 9-12) features a wistful and tender heartbreaker of a slow movement, spoken with utter love by Queyras and his colleagues. All through the recording, Michael Behringer brings just the right expressive quality to the sonatas with both harpsichord and organ; Lee Santana is haunting with the distinctive sound of his theorbo, and cellist Christoph Dangel joins in with astonishing duets. 

Watch a trailer for the album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.

Learn more about Queyras's upcoming concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.