Although the playing of period instruments is now common practice, it’s still rare to hear a solo viola da gamba.
That this performance at the Wigmore Hall was given by Jordi Savall, one of, if not the world’s leading viola de gamba expert, made it a very special occasion indeed.
Titled ‘Les Voix Humaines’, ‘Human Voices’, after a piece by Marin Marais, Savall’s programme aimed to offer a broad introduction to bass viol music from the Baroque period. During the first half we heard a range of different styles, from French compositions to Italian-inspired works by German composers, while the second half focussed solely on the British Isles. Although this international tour was interesting in itself, it was the instrument, as opposed to the repertoire, that held the audience in thrall.
The viola da gamba’s range and flexibility is quite extraordinary. Marais’s voice analogy was not for nothing the instrument can sound almost human, singing and sobbing in alternation and its dynamics can vary from a sustained bass growl to delicate staccato plucking.
We began with Karl Friedrich Abel’s powerful and austere ‘Prelude’ and this melancholy tone continued with Sante-Colombe’s ‘Les Pleurs’, while an exquisite plucked interpretation of the ‘Bourre’ from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E Flat offered some light relief. As Savall is keen to point out in his programme notes, this conscious appropriation of pre-existing work was quite common in the eighteenth-century and in keeping with original viol practice.
In the British half we heard music that was more provincial in flavour and frequently onomatopoeic. Four pieces from Tobias Hume’s Musicall Humors evoked military marches with a juddering bow-technique and whooping horn imitations, while John Playford’s jewel-like ‘La Cloche’ followed a pattern of clock chimes. For the final anonymous Bag-Pipes Tuning pieces, Savall was required to swap two strings around in order to mimic the characteristic drone of bag-pipes. These little works, known by such names as ‘The Pigges of Rumsey’ and ‘Kate of Bardie a Toye’, were full of beauty and rustic charm.
Throughout Savall’s performance was fluid, graceful, almost whispered, and his relationship with the viol seemingly symbiotic. It was a thrilling concert and it’s difficult to think of a more flattering venue for it than the Wigmore Hall: the warm acoustics carried the sound superbly and the usual coughs and snuffles from the audience were silenced by the instrument’s quiet intensity.