The end of last month saw the latest release from AMM Records, the “house label” of the Academy of Ancient Music and Music Director Richard Egarr. The album is a collection of twelve chamber sonatas collected under the title Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno written by Dario Castello and first published in 1621. The release includes a booklet with a dozen pages of background material in three essays by not only Egarr but also William Carter and Alexandra Bamji. Given that there is virtually no biographical information about Castello, this is a rather impressive effort at informing the inquisitive listener. In addition, the reader should not be surprised that a “complete works” project for this composer will be rather limited; and, in fact, the only other publication is a second collection under the same title first printed in 1629.
The first booklet essay basically takes on the question of what constitutes “modern style.” The fact is that the sonata as we know it dates back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. The noun comes from the Italian “sonare,” which means “to sound,” in contrast to “cantare,” which means “to sing.” Thus, the early seventeenth century saw the emergence of multiple-movement compositions for both vocalists (cantatas) and instrumentalists (sonatas), usually with accompaniment and often involving more than one solo part. Castello’s was one of the earliest collection of such instrumental pieces and thus could be identified as “modern.” Furthermore, given how little “hard data” are available, we cannot say with any certainty whether the use of the adjective “modern” came from Castello himself or from his publisher’s interest in promoting sales.
The title page specifies that these sonatas have been composed for “diversi Instrumenti a 2 & 3 voci,” accompanied by organ or “spineta” (clavier). The first eight are the two-voice sonatas; and the remaining four are for three voices. Instrumentation is only partially specified. In the first six sonatas the upper-register instrument is specified only as “soprano.” Low-register instruments are specified as either bassoon or a choice between trombone or violetta, a three-string predecessor of the viola. In the second half of the collection (the seventh through twelfth sonatas), the upper register is explicitly assigned to violins.
On the AMM recording each sonata is allotted a single track. The sonata itself clearly has distinct sections, but there are no tempo indications. Calling these sections “movements” would be a bit of a stretch, since each section involves the exposition of new material with little more than what might be likened to improvisatory “jamming” by way of development. It would be fair to say that each individual sonata can be taken as an opportunity for several instrumentalists to gather together for the social joy of making music (and this could well have been the “pitch” of Castello’s publisher). It is unlikely that either the publisher or any interested performers would have given much thought to whether or not anyone was present in the capacity of “audience.”
Thus, for all the abstraction that emerges when music is made in a recording session, the spirit behind these sonatas is one of an intimate gathering of friends. At this point it is worth noting that I have had several opportunities to observe Egarr “in action” during his appearances as a visitor to Philharmonia Baroque in San Francisco. Usually he plays the same role of both leader and harpsichordist on such visits; and that is basically what he does on this new Castello album (except that some of the keyboard work takes place on a small organ). Even when he performs with the full forces of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, there is always an engaging sense of intimacy in his approach to both leadership and solo performance. On this recording he is assisted in accompaniment by Carter on theorbo. The “sonare” parts are then provided by other AMM players: Pavlo Beznosiuk and Bojan Čičić on violins, Josué Meléndez on cornetto, Joseph Crouch on violetta, Benny Aghassi on dulcian (an early form of bassoon), and Susan Addison on trombone.
It is, of course, unlikely that either composer or publisher ever thought of this as a collection of pieces to be played in a single sitting. Thus, while each sonata is definitely a gem unto itself, a recording project like this one runs the risk of straining the attention span of the listener. However, to the extent that he had liberty to do so, Egarr has made some excellent choices of instrumentation through which the experience of this album, taken in its entirety, becomes a journey through the diverse practices of making music that prevailed in the early decades of the seventeenth century. That diversity includes more virtuosity than a modern listener might suspect; and, as a result, the listener who takes a beginning-to-end approach to listening to this album is likely to develop a fondness for not only Castello’s music but also the breadth of talented musicians contributing as performers. The booklet also informs such listeners that an album of Castello’s second book is “in the works;” and I suspect I am not the only one looking forward to it!