Sergei Istomin has performed solo and chamber music recitals in many European and North American Festivals (Aix-en-Provence, Beaune, Brugge, Nantes, Lockenhaus, Schleswig-Holstein, Sopron, Wallonie, San [...]
They spoke about it
At first glance, the viola da gamba obviously evokes the cello: their shapes are similar and both are held between the knees and bowed. But the similarity ends there. In fact, the viola da gamba has more in common with the lute. Like a lute, a gamba’s neck is fretted, and it has six or seven strings tuned in fourths around a central third, rather than the fifths of a cello. This gives the gamba lute-like harmonic and contrapuntal options not available to the cello, which has only four strings.
Indeed, the viola da gamba can be thought of as a “bowed lute”; even its history of successive national schools, from the early Renaissance to the late Baroque, is similar to that of the lute. The first of these schools was the early 16th-century Italian-Spanish school, with Silvestro di Ganassi and Diego Ortiz; a century later came a significant English school, with Tobias Hume, John Jenkins, and Christopher Simpson.
The period straddling the 17th and 18th centuries marked the rise of a great French school, with Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray— “l’ange et le diable” (the angel and the devil), so named for their diametrically opposed playing styles. During the middle Baroque, this school added a continuo line, often played by a second gamba, to the solo part.
The virtuoso gambists and composers of the German school only emerged toward the end of the instrument’s history, just as the cello was taking over. In a sense, therefore, the beautiful solo works of this school recorded here are the gamba’s swan songs—all the more so because it is said that the viola da gamba, better than any other instrument, could imitate the subtle inflections of the human voice.
Abel: 27 solo pieces for viola da gamba
Though Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) tried early in his career to make a name for himself in Germany, he only achieved success after moving to London in 1758. A contemporary of Bach’s sons, Abel teamed up with the youngest of them, Johann Christian, to produce the “Bach-Abel concerts,” an annual series of ten to fifteen events that was a popular part of English musical life for nearly 25 years. When Johann Christian died in 1782, Abel handed the reins to younger hands and, until his own death five years later, contented himself with composing and playing. While primary instrumental, Abel’s body of work is relatively diverse and includes all types of symphonies, concertos and sonatas in the gallant style.
The major portion of his work for viola da gamba occurs in two collections, one of 34 sonatas with or without continuo, the other of 27 solo pieces. The two groups of pieces recorded here come from this second collection. While Abel knew how to impress an audience in the fast movements, it would appear that he was mostly appreciated for his ability to move the listener to tears in the slow movements. Born into a lineage of gambists stretching back several generations, Abel was, paradoxically, the last great virtuoso of the instrument’s history.
Schenk: Two sonatas for viola da gamba, from L’écho du Danube, Op. 9
Though born in Amsterdam, Johannes Schenk (1660-1712) worked primarily in Germany, whence originate numerous testimonials lauding his virtuosity, including several poems. At the age of 39, he moved to Düsseldorf and took up a post as court musician for the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm I. Nothing is known of his musical education, but some of his virtuosic passages point to an English connection. However, like most Germans of the late Baroque, his writing is characterized by a fusion of national styles marked increasingly by French and Italian influences. His œuvre comprises ten works, some with colourful, poetic titles and all published during his lifetime.
Five of these pieces are for viola da gamba: Op. 2, 15 suites with continuo; Op. 6, 14 suites with optional continuo; Op. 8, a set of 12 suites for two gambas without continuo entitled Le nymphe di Rheno (The Nymphs of the Rhine); Op. 9, six sonatas, four with continuo and two without, collectively called L’écho du Danube; and finally, Op. 10, Les fantaisies bisarres de la goutte, for gamba and continuo, though unfortunately, the continuo part has been lost. This recording presents the two solo sonatas of L’écho du Danube, Op. 9. Both sonatas have a similar structure: an overture in the toccata style of German organists before Bach, followed by a mix of “arias,” sonata movements and, toward the end, a “giga” in the Italian style. The fourth sonata also includes a French-style “gavotte.”
Telemann: Sonata in D major for solo viola da gamba
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)—who, with J.S. Bach and Handel, formed a sort of “holy trinity” of the German High Baroque—does not appear ever to have played the viol, even though by the age of ten he was proficient on a number of instruments ranging from violin, to flute, to various keyboards. He spent most of his career as a cantor in Hamburg where, from 1721 until his death 45 years later, he wrote over 2,000 cantatas. But outside of his duties in the church, he was involved in the renewal of opera, in countless concerts, and in the creation of Germany’s first music magazine, Der getreue Music-Meister. It was in this publication, of which only 25 issues dating from 1728 and 1729 survive, that he published the Sonata in D major for solo viola da gamba. Once again, we find the fusion of national styles so dear to composers of the late Baroque. The “Andante” is a pastiche of English “mixt divisions”; the “vivace” that follows is in the Italian violin style; the very German “Andante” starts with an expressive “Recitative” followed by a fugue-like “Aria.” The second “vivace” ends with a dance rhythm in a style that recalls the great French gamba school.
© 2003, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. Translation: Peter Christensen.