Friday, August 4, 2023

Viola da gamba solo

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the viola da gamba was one of the most revered instruments. It was played in consort, but music for viola da gamba solo was also written, and especially music to be played the lyra way, as it was called, was very popular. Although the term lyra viol referred to the way of playing in the first place, the lyra viol was different from other viols in that it had six gut strings. Music for lyra viol always indicates the tuning in which it has to be played. More than fifty tunings are documented; Alfonso Ferrabosco [1], one of the main composers for the lyra viol, confines himself to three. The pieces in his collection Lessons for 1. 2. and 3 viols of 1609 are ordered according to tuning. Most are printed in pairs on the same page, and Richard Boothby, in his selection from the collection, performs them as such. Most pairs consist of alman and coranto, but there are also pairs of galliard and coranto and pavan (pavin) and coranto. In addition, the collection includes three preludes and a single pavan. Boothby also selected two pairs for two viols, in which he is seconded by Asako Morikawa. Recently Ferrabosco's oeuvre has received quite some interest; I reviewed two recordings of consort music and music for lyra viol. Boothby's recording is a most welcome addition to the discography, also because of his engaging and dynamic playing. This disc is pretty much an ideal way to get to know the lyra viol and its music as well as the oeuvre of Ferrabosco.

Matteo Cicchitti [2] recorded a programme of music by four composers, two of which are very well-known (Diego Ortiz, Tobias Hume), whereas the two others are largely unknown quantities. The programme starts with four recercadas from the Tratado de glosas by Ortiz. Cicchitti then goes on with six pieces by Hume, taken from the first book which was printed in 1605. These are pieces that undoubtedly find their origin in improvisations by the composer. Then we get some pieces by Benjamin Hely (fl 1680-1690), who in 1699 published The Compleat Violist, which was intended as instruction material for 'young practitioners'. These pieces are recorded here for the first time. The same goes for the largest part of this disc: 21 ricercares by the Italian composer Angelo Michele Bertalotti (c1665-1747). Given that the viola da gamba was hardly played in Italy after the mid-17th century, one may wonder about the reasons these pieces were written. It needs to be said that they are not intended for the viola da gamba. They are taken from Bertalotti's Regole facilissime per apprendere con facilità, e prestezza li canti fermo e figurato dati alle stampe per comodo delli putti delle Scuole Pie di Bologna of 1698. This collection consists of pieces for one and for two voices, intended for vocal training. One could compare them with solfeggi. They have been transposed down to fit the viola da gamba. As there is little chance that such pieces will ever be recorded in vocal performances (for which they are not intended anyway), this disc offers an opportunity to get to know them. Fortunately, they can stand on their own feet this way, especially if they are played as well as by Matteo Cicchitti, who has presented here an interesting survey of what was written for the viol or can be played on it. I was especially struck by Hely's music, and I hope that more of his (small) oeuvre is going to be recorded. It seems well worth it.

Roberto Gini [3], in the liner-notes to his recording, sheds light on the conflict between two ways of playing the viola da gamba and composing of music for it which took place in France in the second half of the 17th century. On the one hand there was the jeu d'harmonie, which was connected to the old way of playing, the ancient port de main, and which combined melody and accompaniment, which suggests polyphony. The nouveau port de main represented the domination of melody, the jeu de mélodie, in which the viol played mostly just one melodic line (without avoiding harmonies altogether). This style was promoted by Sieur de Sainte-Colombe and his followers, among whom Marin Marais was the most prominent. It does not surprise that the latter started to write music for the viol with basso continuo, which provided the counterpoint that earlier was taken care of by the viol itself. Gini has recorded a programme of pieces in the 'old manner', by composers from France, England and Germany. The origin of chordal playing was England, and it is represented here by William Young, who emigrated to the continent and worked for a number of years in Austria. Nicolas Hotman and Monsieur Du Buisson are the earliest representatives of the French viol school. Theodore Steffkin(s) was of German birth, worked for some time in England and also in Italy, which makes him an interesting link between the English viol school and viol playing at the continent. Gini has produced a historically interesting and musically compelling recording of music that is seldom performed and recorded. He plays the selected pieces brilliantly, and his liner-notes are of great informative value. This is a disc no lover of the viola da gamba should miss.

Sieur de Machy (fl 2nd half of the 17th C) [4] was a composer who got directly involved in the debate between the 'harmonic' and 'melodic' schools. We know about this from the treatise Traité de la Viole by Jean Rousseau (1687), who was a representative of the 'melodic' school. Unfortunately Machy's contribution to the debate has been lost. We only know his views through liberal quotations in Rousseau's book - of which we can't be sure that they are correct - and the composer's preface to his book of suites. In his music melodic and harmonic episodes alternate. Machy wanted to underline the autonomy of the viol. He specifically composed suites which could be played by the viol without any accompaniment as was becoming increasingly the standard in the last decades of the 17th century. It is exactly for that reason that he emphasized the 'harmonic' nature of the viol, and stressed the importance of tenües (held notes) - notes that must be held even when they are no longer physically played by the bow. These are sounds whose resonance must be cultivated and prolonged so as to create harmony with the sounds successively produced by the bow. This reflects the ideal of a 'self-sufficient' instrument. Another feature of Machy's suites is that he explores the entire range of the viola da gamba. The Australian gambist Shaun Ng presents four suites in D minor and major and in G minor and major respectively. They open with a prélude, which has a marked improvisatory character, and continue with a sequence of dances, some of which are followed by a double. The disc ends appropriately with a chaconne. Ng is an outstanding player and performs these suites brilliantly. I noted pretty strong dynamic differences, about which I am a little in two minds, as I wonder whether this was part of the French style of playing. I don't know the answer. Anyway, given that Machy's music is not that well-known and its quality is without any doubt, this engaging interpretation of these four suites is most welcome.

Johanna Rose [5] makes an interesting connection between French music for the viola da gamba and what was written in Germany. However, as she focuses on music for the viola da gamba without basso continuo, and plays music by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (c1640-c1700), one might expect her to turn to contemporaries of his in Germany, or to Georg Philipp Telemann, who also composed music for viola da gamba solo, which was clearly inspired by the French style he so admired. In fact, Ms Rose turns to Bach: he wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord, but no music for the viola da gamba alone. She plays two of Bach's cello suites on a viola da gamba with seven strings, an instrument she herself designed. Interestingly, it is Sainte-Colombe who is credited with having added a seventh string to the viola da gamba. In the liner-notes, it is argued that Bach's cello suites are rooted in the past, and that they are a blending of old and new. Sainte-Colombe was a representative of the 'melodic' school, although in fact he mixes melodic and harmonic elements. That is also the case with Bach's cello suites. From that perspective the connection makes sense. Johanna Rose plays the last two of Bach's cello suites and excerpts from a suite by Sainte-Colombe, embraced by pieces from the pen of his son, who lived and worked in England. Interestingly, the latter's prélude with which this part of the disc opens, is largely written in the 'harmonic' style. Sainte-Colombe is better-known for his Concerts à deux violes esgales than for his solo suites. That makes this disc a valuable addition to the discography anyway, and that also concerns the pieces by his son. Ms Rose is a fine player who does deliver excellent performances of Sainte-Colombe. Her Bach is also nice to hear; here there is more competition, and it is certainly interesting to hear the cello suites on the viola da gamba. They fare pretty well, although I prefer to hear them on a cello.

The Fantasias by Georg Philipp Telemann [6], which one may have expected from Johanna Rose, come from Israel Castillo Hernández. Since they were rediscovered about ten years ago, quite a number of recordings have been released. It is easy to understand why they have become so popular among performers. Today Telemann is generally ackowledged as one of the great composers of his time. The qualities of his fantasias for the transverse flute are well-known, and obviously that made gambists curious about the fantasias for their instrument. For a long time they were assumed to be lost, and when they were rediscovered, they turned out to be of the same high quality as the flute fantasias. Telemann himself was certainly not a viol virtuoso, but he was able to play almost any instrument in vogue in his time. He knew enough about the technicalities of each instrument to write idiomatic music for it. The viola da gamba plays a substantial role in his oeuvre, which does not surprise, considering his liking of the French style. The fantasias were written in the time that the galant idiom had become fashionable, but they include quite some counterpoint, for instance in a number of fugues. Like Bach and Sainte-Colombe, they are a mixture of melodic and harmonic passages. One can leave it to Telemann to create quite some variety within this set of twelve fantasias. These come off very well in this fine recording by Castillo Hernández, who is not afraid to emphasize the dramatic features of some pieces, such as the opening movement of the Fantasia No. 11. This is a compelling recording, which can compete with any recording that has been released previously.

[1] Alfonso Ferrabosco II: "Music to hear - Music for lyra viol from 1609"
Richard Boothby, Asaka Morikawa, viola da gamba
Signum Classics SIGCD757 (© 2023) details

[2] "Ricercare e Canzoni" (Ortiz, Hume, Hely, Bertalotti)
Matteo Cicchitti, viola da gamba
Challenge Classics CC72918 (© 2022) details

[3] "Viola da gamba - Le Jeu d'Harmonie"
Roberto Gini, viola da gamba
Aulicus Classics ALC 0047 (© 2021) details

[4] Mr. De Machy: "Pieces de Violle"
Shaun Ng, viola da gamba
A415 Music CD006 (© 2022) details

[5] "7 Movements - J.S. Bach, Sainte-Colombe father & son"
Johanna Rose, viola da gamba
Rubicon RCD1101 (© 2022) details

[6] Georg Philipp Telemann: 12 Fantaisies pour la basse de violle
Israel Castillo Hernández, viola da gamba
Urtext JBCC334 (© 2022) details

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