Martin Berteau (1708-1771): Sonatas & Airs for Violoncello / Christophe Coin


The music of French composer Martin Berteau has never been well represented on record. In fact, all I discovered were brief appearances on a handful of 18th-century cello anthologies. That's surprising given the fact that Berteau is widely considered to be the founder of the French school of cello playing, if not all of modern cello performance. Offering over an hour of Berteau's beautiful music, this Glossa release titled simply Martin Berteau, Sonatas & airs for violoncello is a landmark release - and all the more so as Berteau's proponent here is renowned French cellist and early music specialist Christophe Coin.

French gambist Martin Berteau (1708-1777) is said to have made his personal discovery of the violoncello during a brief visit to Bohemia, and he devoted himself to the somewhat smaller, more agilely managed instrument from that point forward. Up until this time, the accepted role of the viola da gamba and the violincello was as a basso continuo instrument. Broadening the expressive and technical possibilities of the instrument, Berteau raised it from this supporting role to one of a true solo instrument in its own right.

Berteau was a renowned master of his instrument and teacher who influenced every violoncellist who followed him. So how can it be that he became so lost to posterity? One certain contributing factor was simply confusion over his name. By coincidence, the name "Martin" was under claim by a number of 18th-century musicians connected to the cello, including Giovanni Battista Sammartini (frequently referred to as 'Martino' by his contemporaries) who had long been credited with the popular Cello Sonata Op. 1, no. 3 appearing on this album, which was rightfully attributed to Berteau, only in 1989.

Most of the music on the recording is drawn from the six Sonate da camera, Op. 1, five of which are included. The solo cello line is accompanied by a basso continuo of harpsichord and a second cello, performed here by Markus Hunninger and Petr Skalka. The exception is Sonata VI, a trio for three cellos where the performers have elected to dispense with the harpsichord in favor of displaying the rich sonorities of the three cellos alone. The sample in the sidebar from the album is how it opens, Grave and Moderato from the Sonata V in E flat major. There are additional selections for you to hear in the video provided by Glossa below. The music is by turns graceful, spirited, rhythmically incisive and always melodically inventive, altogether perfect for the instrument. A large part of the music's charm is in how Berteau's harmonic progression unfold in such interesting and gratifying ways.

For the cello student or aficionado, this is an obvious acquisition, but its appeal will reach much further than this. For any music lover, it will be a delightful discovery, all considerations of historic interests and musical specialties aside. It's a charming album I've enjoyed over and over again.

Martin Berteau: Sonatas & Airs for Violoncello / Christophe Coin, P. Skalka, F. Knecht, M. Hunninger