Hélène Plouffe has a passion for early music and performs it in all possible guises: as soloist, chamber player, in string quartet, and in orchestra. In order to touch upon as vast a repertory as [...]
Viola d'amore: Telemann, Biber, Graupner, Bach, Milandre, Petzold
They spoke about it
Just in time to celebrate love what could be better that an instrument named after it? The viola d’amore. Violinist Hélène Plouffe explores the most beautiful works dedicated to this delightful instrument. Arias from Bach St. John’s Passion accompany works by Telemann, Graupner (with bass chalumeau), Biber, Petzold and Milandre.
This viola d’amore project has been such a wonderful adventure. For me, making a CD is a way to leave behind something tangible of all my experience, work and dedication to my art at a specific moment in my career. Since artists are constantly redefining themselves, I will never again perform this music in exactly the same way, but I am very pleased to introduce you to this instrument, this repertoire and to the emotions we experienced during the project.
Why record an album on viola d’amore?
Within the specialty of performing early music on violin and viola, the viola d’amore is yet another sub-specialty. I do not get the chance to play this magnificent instrument professionally nearly as often as I would like, so I was thrilled when Analekta gave me the opportunity to share my love of this repertoire with you. When I hear the harmonic splendour of the viola d’amore resonating beside my ear, I am transported into a whole other soundscape.
About the viola d’amore used for this recording, its tunings and origins
I had to use several tunings for this album— four to be exact—and since this recording was done with a single instrument, several factors were involved in my choices. For example, I decided to record Biber’s Partita in the key of D minor rather than the original C minor because I would otherwise have had to radically adjust my instrument (change strings and then let the instrument stabilize) and there was simply not enough time. I also loved the challenge of playing in scordatura (an unusual or modified tuning of a stringed instrument) since it forces one to form a mental picture of how the scale constantly changes on the neck of the instrument. This requires the performer to make an adjustment for each piece.
The viola d’amore I use belonged to Jean Rogister (1879–1964), a Belgian composer (60 works, including two for viola d’amore), performer and teacher. He founded the Liège Quartet in 1925 and the AMC (Association pour l’étude de la musique de chambre) in 1933, whose repertoire comprised early music and modern music for period instruments.
The instrument has 14 strings, 7 of which are sympathetic. It comes from Tyrolia and dates from the second half of the 18th century. The label inside bears the inscription: “Carlo Antonio Testore figlio maggiore del fu Carlo Giuseppe in Contrada larga ad segno dell’Aquila Milano 1741.” The end of the peg box is beautifully decorated with a carved angel head with wings on the neck. The instrument has been in Montréal since 1988 and is currently owned by Rogister’s granddaughter, Lydia Rogister.
Choosing the repertoire
My first concert on viola d’amore was Bach’s St. John Passion, and it was quite a discovery, not of the Passion itself of course, which I already knew, but of the sensation of playing the viola d’amore in it. I was immediately intrigued by the new repertoire options this instrument opened up to me. In choosing the pieces for this disc, my goal was to share with you the many different facets of this majestic instrument.
I chose Biber’s Partita for two violas d’amore because the writing style maximizes their natural resonance. You can tell right away when a composer plays the instrument for which he composes, and I was particularly touched by this work’s intensity and awe-inspiring nature. Chloe and I had a lot of fun testing out different rhythmic flows and phrasings to highlight as many of the piece’s dimensions as possible.
Milandre was a real discovery for me. I came across his Méthode facile pour la viole d’amour during my research, and the aria Ah que l’amour is a piece he suggests players use to familiarize themselves with the instrument. At times optimistic, nostalgic and serene, we present this piece in all its simplicity.
Telemann unites the viola d’amore with transverse flute. Since their tessitura is similar, the exchanges between the two instruments are very well matched. I would describe this trio as luminous, positive and lively. In the last movement, one might even hear a village celebration.
J.S. Bach used viola d’amore in only a few of his works, but when he did, it was in a very modest orchestration that allowed the instrument’s many subtle musical colours to be appreciated. Here, we get the impression that the violas have an even more penetrating sound. For example, the slowness of the first aria allows us to move our bow arms as slowly as possible to produce a great intensity.
In the Graupner trio, the viola d’amore is in dialogue with a bass chalumeau, whose enveloping sound fills the space and surrounds the sound of the viola. Graupner—one of the composers who wrote the most for viola d’amore—leaves the solo instruments a great deal of freedom here by scattering rests throughout the bass line.
The Petzold dance suite gives a good idea of what a musician’s role might have been at the time. I had to imagine the dancers in order to properly judge the spirit of these dances and also to coordinate tempi with Petzold’s writing, which is not easy on viola d’amore. That said, since the suite is unaccompanied, I took great pleasure in the freedom this allowed me to follow the whims of inspiration, while respecting the work’s style.
One of the advantages of being a freelancer is the chance to work with a great many musicians from both here and elsewhere. This albumwas born in an amazinglywarm, friendly, stimulating, and inspiring environment. All the musicians contributed their own ideas, emotions, experience and professionalism, and we were all sad when the project ended. When the happiness within a team is palpable, it works wonders I count myself very lucky to have had the chance to record this disc with these musicians.
Of all the lucky moments in my career, one of the luckiest is without a doubt getting the chance to play such a beautiful instrument. The fact that Lydia Rogister allows me to use her instrument inspires and stimulates me to seek out repertoire. Thank you.
Thanks to Denis Juget for the beautiful organ, the tuning and his encouragement.
Thanks to Mark Simons for opening his doors so we could rehearse, and for having stored a
harpsichord and an organ in his home formuch of the summer.
It is hard to find a bass chalumeau in North America, but I was lucky enough to get in touch with Adam Gilbert, head of early music at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California. He made the task easy. Without his precious help, I could not have done the Graupner trio on this album.
© Hélène Plouffe
Translation: Peter Christensen