Dario Castello: Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno, Libro Primo 1621
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
AAM Records AAM005. 68’39
Sonatas 1-12: for two violins; violin and cornetto; violin and violetta; violin and trombone; cornetto and violetta; violin and dulcian; cornetto, violin and dulcian; two violins and dulcian; two violins and trombone.
Very little is known about Dario Castello. His birth and death dates are unknown, but are possibly something like 1590-1660. His two volumes of Sonate concertate were published in Venice in 1621 and 1629. The prefaces of his two volumes suggest that he was on the musical staff of San Marco under Monteverdi, and also leader of a group of piffari, playing cornetto or dulcian. Although Castello was a common name in Venice, Dario wasn’t, so was probably a pseudonym. Records suggest that there were three Venetian Castello instrumentalists, one of whom seems to be Dario’s son.
His two volumes of Sonate concertate were immensely popular at the time, and remain so today. The first book consists of 12 Sonatas for two or three solo instruments and continuo. The second set of Sonatas range from one to four solo instruments. They are often heard today played by trio sonata groups, with two violins and continuo. But this Academy of Ancient Music recording of the complete 1621 Libro Primo introduces the wide range of instruments that Castello specified in his score, with the addition of a cornetto, violetta (here interpreted as basso violetta da brazzo, an instrument an octave lower than a violin), dulcian and trombone to the two violins.
Although each Sonata has its own distinctive voice, their format is relatively straightforward. An opening imitative interplay between the solo instruments, enlivened by sudden changes of pulse (markings include alegra, adasio, presto, affetto, and ecco) and moments of textural togetherness, is followed by a solo section, where each instrument develops a melodic idea, finally returning to another imitative passage leading to the distinctive Castello cadence (pictured) – the latter a feature of the musical language of this period.
The choice of instruments is partly specified by Castello, although the treble voice is often just described as Sopran, allowing the AAM to switch between their two violinists and cornettist. The last four Sonatas are for three instruments, with trombone or dulcian bass below two specified violins although on this recording Sonata Nona uses cornetto and violin, rather than two violins. The problem with this (and the similar SOnata Terza) is that it is very difficult for the cornetto to achieve the ecco effect in the final sections, so the subtlety of the f and p markings is lost. But Josué Meléndez makes up for this by the excellent ornamental cornetto twiddles. I liked the fact that the two instruments (here, and in other pairings of instruments) don’t slavishly follow each others’ added flourishes or rhythmic variations to the musical text. Each speaks with an independent voice which is fully in keeping with the spirit of Castello and other composers of his ilk.
A variety of accompanimental colours are drawn from the continuo theorbo, organ, and harpsichord. The recording balance for the latter sometimes makes it sound rather distance and subdued, bringing the sound of the theorbo to the fore. Both continuo players correctly adopt the role of background supporters, but occasionally leap to the foreground to make themselves felt, most frequently with Richard Egarr going off on a little flight of keyboard fancy.
As William Carter suggests in his introductory note, listening to too many of these Sonatas in a row can be ‘an exhausting experience’, adding that ‘it’s safest to consume in moderation’. The easy availability of the scores (both original and edited) on the internet (here) gives the opportunity to treat each Sonata as a mini opera, luxuriating in the complex sequences of differing moods that Castello conjures up, and having a lie down before venturing on to the next. His music is quite extraordinary, at times anarchic and quixotic, and often challenging the then accepted notion of harmony. It fits within the stylus phantasticus developed by Italian keyboard players of the period that went on to influence much of European music in the rest of the century. The musical language of the Stil Moderno is discussed in an introductory essay, as is the background of Venice in the time of Dario Castello.
The playing is outstanding, so much so that I will name all the instrumentalists: Pavlo Beznosiuk and Bojan Čičić violins, Josué Meléndez cornetto, Joseph Crouch violetta, Benny Aghassi dulcian, Susan Addison trombone, William Carter theorbo, Richard Egarr harpsichord & organ. The AAM’s recording of Castello’s Libro Secondo will be released later this year.