5 Pieces in Folk Style, op. 102. Adagio and Allegro, op. 70. Fantasiestück, op. 73. Cello ConcertoSol Gabetta (vc); Giovanni Antonini, cond; Bertrand Chamayou (fp); Kammerorchester Basel SONY 88985352272 (58:16)
All is not what it seems with this new Schumann album from Sol Gabetta. From the cover, which shows Gabetta pretending to play on a set of disembodied cello ribs, the label, and Gabetta’s own stellar reputation, it would be fair to expect a vehicle for her star prowess. But this is a different kind of project, as is demonstrated by the liner, not an airy and self-serving interview with Gabetta, but a detailed discussion of Schumann’s cello music by Ruth Seiberts: The cellist doesn’t even get a bio.
Even more surprisingly, these are period-instrument performances, or at least period-instrument accompaniments: Pianist Bertrand Chamayou plays a J. B. Streicher fortepiano, made in Vienna in 1847, and the Kammerorchester Basel—who, it seems, swing both ways—on this occasion play on gut strings and with period brass. But someone forgot to tell Gabetta herself, whose penetrating tone in the chamber works suggests metal strings and who (thankfully) eschews the sweeping portamento that we increasingly associate with 19th-century performance practice.
These are assertive performances from Gabetta, and they take some getting used to. The Five Pieces in Folk Style are a good place to start, because Gabetta is able to bring rhythmic focus, with her narrow tone and brusque articulation. The other cello and piano works, the Adagio and Allegro and Fantasiestück, require more lyrical playing, and Gabetta shows she can mellow her tone, but this is still a very up-front cello sound. Chamayou is a lively and alert accompanist, and the engineers find a good balance between the two instruments. The fortepiano sounds boxy in the mid-register but has an appealing depth in the lower range—so the period instrument is a mixed blessing here.
The period instruments in the Basel orchestra make less of an impression in the concerto, although their playing, too, is suitably light and agile. Gabetta is on excellent form here, expanding her tonal palette to match the orchestra, while still retaining that focus of tone and line. The concerto is clearly the main selling point for this disc, though its period credentials are of only marginal interest—and when you add in the boxy fortepiano, the result is an elegant but curious album, with Gabetta’s distinctive playing only partially alleviating its underlying concept problem.