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Elinor Frey illuminates roots of solo cello

By Lucas Phillips '16

April 25, 2013

On Saturday, cellist Elinor Frey performed her program, “La voce del violoncello” (The Voice of the Violincello). In it, Frey explored the Italian origin of solo cello music made famous by J.S. Bach’s “6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,” written around 1720.

The performance was especially interesting because of this rarely-performed repertoire. As Frey explained during the concert, cellists get, “stuck on Bach” and do not explore the tradition that already existed when Bach decided to write for solo cello.

The oldest piece she performed, the “Chiacona à Basso Solo” by Guiseppe Colombi, predates Bach’s “Suites” by almost 50 years.

Frey’s performance revealed that the tradition of solo cello was strong and sophisticated by the time Bach was writing.  Composer Guiseppe Maria Dall’Abaco’s music in particular bore a strong resemblance to Bach’s.

Frey reflected, “I am continually captivated by Dall’Abaco’s ability, like Bach’s, to generate rhythmic interest through changes of register, the intriguing perception of multiple voices and a great and often noble, intimate and tragic elegance.”

Frey’s performance re-envisions Bach—though a genius—as a participant in an established tradition of cello music.

Frey played a Baroque cello and her playing reflected a close study of Baroque performance styles. For example, in Baroque music, vibrato was used as an ornament and therefore much less frequently employed than in modern performance. Frey used the effect sparingly and deliberately, relying on precise intonation and supreme tone control to make her cello sing. 

Her playing also reflected the vast differences between the sound of a modern instrument and a Baroque instrument. The latter is strung with gut strings, which give a warmer, more diffuse sound with more present overtones. Frey’s cello did not have as wide a range of volume as a modern cello has. However, her dynamic choices were thoughtful and nuanced, and I felt this was more than adequate recompense for a loss of volume. Though gut strings are also notoriously difficult play, Frey’s playing was clean even in technically challenging pieces like the Toccata No. 10 in D minor by Francesco Paolo Supriani.

I was also impressed by the depth and quality of Frey’s musical ideas. Her  playing was marked by thoughtful restraint, which gave the performance a transparency that emphasized the strength of the compositions.

Because this early music is rarely performed, the concert was enlightening. Between pieces, Frey gave historical background to the repertoire and its composers.

Her masterful playing, however, spoke most about the quality of solo cello music before Bach, at a time when the cello was coming into its own, or as Frey explained, “finding its voice.”

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