Exactly three months ago today the Acis Label released the album Entrez, le Diable! The Virtuoso Cello at the Concert Spirituel. This album marked the recording debut of Baroque cellist Juliana Soltis, whose portrait photograph appears on the back cover next to the list of compositions she is performing:
These are all chamber music selections in which she plays with a continuo consisting of gamba (Adaiha MacAdam-Somer), theorbo (Lucas Harris) and harpsichord (Justin Murphy-Mancini).
For those unfamiliar with the Concert Spirituel, it was the name of one of the first public concert series ever to be organized. As one might guess, the concerts were given in Paris; and they took place between 1725 and 1790. Because they were intended for the prosperous members of the bourgeoisie, who tended to be excluded from royal salons, the lower aristocracy, and foreign visitors, the institution did not survive the French Revolution. The repertoire was not restricted to French composers but included works by Johann Christian Bach, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The series presented the public premiere of Mozart’s K. 297 symphony in D major, which is why it is known as the “Paris” symphony.
The album consists of sonatas by four composers, all of whom were known for their interest in cello virtuosity or in exploring future trends. It is unlikely that their names will register with many readers (perhaps not any at all): Salvatore Lanzetti, Martin Berteau, François Martin, and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. Of these the only one that I have encountered in performance is Barrière, whose music was performed when Harmonia Felice gave a concert for the San Francisco Early Music Society in February of 2012. Because Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was the featured composer on that program, I must confess that I have no recollections of Barrière’s contribution, let alone the extent to which he was viewed as a “transitional” composer of his time. On the other hand, thanks to cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, I know that Berteau was one the inspirations for Gaspar Cassadó’s Collection de six morceaux classiques (collection of six classical pieces).
However unfamiliar the selections may be, one can still appreciate the technical skill that Soltis brings to her execution. This is not just a matter of deft fingering and a keen sense of pitch. The Berteau sonata concludes with a rondo in which the composer seems more occupied with innovative sonorities (including harmonic bowing) than with thematic material. This involves the sort of creative thinking that probably left Concert Spirituel audiences perplexed, uneasy, and/or downright indignant. (One wonders what Haydn might have done had he been present when this piece was performed.)
Still, the unfamiliarity of the “whole package” may discourage some listeners from embarking on this adventure of discovery in the first place. Fortunately, we now live in an age of tracks and playlists. Those who wish may become acquainted with Soltis’ repertoire on a sonata-by-sonata basis. Such a strategy could be achieved simply by attending to the individual sonatas in the order in which they appear on the track listing. Taking that approach may even cultivate a sensitivity to the six-year gap that separates the first Barrière sonata on the album (the fourth in his first book of sonatas) from the second (the fifth in the third book). Whether or not any of the selections that Soltis performs register as “diabolic” will be left entirely to the ear of the listener!