Culture Magazine

Concert Review: History Between His Knees

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Jordi Savall at Weill Recital Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: History Between His Knees

Jordi Savall (left) and his viola da gamba, made in 1697 when William III was King of England.
Photo from Alia-Vox.

The bass viol or viola da gamba is a musical instrument that went out of vogue around 1700, with the sudden upward rise of the violoncello and other members of the violin family. Of modern orchestral instruments, only the body if the double-bass, with its sloping shoulders and distinctive pear shape bears any resemblance to the Renaissance viol. In the hands of master gambist Jordi Savall, who played a solo recital to a packed Weill Recital Hall Monday night as part of Carnegie Hall's ongoing Before Bach series, it is a rich and uniquely expressive instrument, uncannily like the human voice.
The viola da gamba (literally "viol for the legs") is a bowed instrument that is played upright, sort of a cross between a cello and a lute. It has six catgut strings (these are temperamental and need constant coddling and tuning with wooden pegs) that are strung on a high bridge and is played (like the double bass) with a convex bow held in the German manner. Frets march halfway down its wide, tapered neck. Although soft-voiced compared to the cello, the viol is sweet of tone when bowed, plucked or strummed. Mixing these techniques as needed allowed Mr. Savall to create warm tones and unfamiliar sonorities on his instrument, using the buzz of the frets to magnificent advantage and creating chords that would be impossible on the cello.
A native of Barcelona with five decades performance experience, Mr. Savall became a gambist (and eventually a tireless champion of little-heard period music in the 1960s. He is the director of two instrumental ensembles (one of these, Le Concert de Nations  plays at Zankel Hall on Thursday night) and owns Alia Vox, his own record label in France.
In the dim light of the Weill Concert Hall, with his instrument gripped firmly between his knees, Mr. Savall struck a courtly figure, aristocratic and elegant but also professorial, wanting to share this unusual program with a doting audience. He plays an antique viol made in London by Barak Norman in 1697, an elegant piece  adorned (as many are) with a small, cherubic face on the headstock. The evening was divided in two: with a selection of French proto-Baroque repertory followed by popular airs and dances from the British Isles.
In keeping with the Before Bach theme, most of the works on the first half of the program come from French composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, the period in France before the tragédie lyrique of Jean-Baptiste Lully began to hold sway. These unaccompanied works, by composers like Marin Marais and Sainte-Colombe pére et fils were soothing and plaintive, from Marais' plangent "Sarabande" in an an elegant Spanish style to the younger Saint-Colombe's Fantasie et Rondeau.  Most importantly, the solo setting allowed the gamba to be featured on its own terms, free of being drowned out in an ensemble and singing out on its own terms.
Mr. Savall's skilled and tasteful playing brought meaning into every unfamiliar note, from the slow, courtly dances to the rhythmic and adventurous Musettes of Marais.  The decision to interrupt the parade of unfamiliar music with a transcription of Bach's Bourée from Cello Suite No. 4 gave the listener some very necessary context. Indeed, it was fascinating to hear the difference between French and German styles, which may have been the soloist's intent.
The second half of the concert moved north, opening with six selections from Tobias Hume's Musical Resolutions. These pieces, with titles like "A Souldiers March" (sic) and "Captain Hume's Pavin" had a distinct military character. Rataplan rhythms were achieved through skilled use of chords and col legno playing, with Mr. Savall using his viol as a percussive and melodic instrument, often at the same time. The finale of the set, "A Souldiers Resolution" was invigorating and full of bold rhythmic ideas, tapped out like a frantic telegraph by Mr. Savall's agile bow.
A word of explanation and a re-tuning was necessary for the next set of traditional pieces, drawn from the Manchester Viol Book. Mr. Savall adjusted his fourth and fifth strings to create a "drone" effect almost like the deep pipes on a bagpipe. This accompanied tunes like "The Lancashire Pipes", the dour "The Pigges of Rumsey"and the energetic "A Toye." The concert ended with a set of six Irish and Scottish tunes. The melancholy "Crabs in the Skillet", the exuberant virtuosity of "The Sword Dance" and the sheer abandon and rhythmic intensity of "Lord Moira's Hornpipe" were the most memorable offerings. The artist, met with enthusiastic applause, took two encores, closing with a moving "Lullabye and Variations," displaying multiple aspects and sounds of his chosen instrument.

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