The Boston Early Music Festival, in addition to staging a biennial festival and exposition centered around the production of a Baroque opera complete with period instruments, costumes, and staging, has brought consistently fine performers to their annual concert season. Making their debut with the Festival, Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gamba, and lutenist Luca Pianca appeared in a delightfully varied program at the First Church in Cambridge on Friday, February 26th at 8 pm.
Vittorio Ghielmi’s magnificent seven-string bass viola da gamba was made in Paris by Michel Colichon in 1688. A bowed string instrument with frets, the viol (Italian viola) first made its appearance in Europe at the end of the 15th century. While the viola da braccio (“arm viol”) was held on the arm, treble, tenor, and bass instruments of the “viola da gamba” family were held downward on the lap or between the knees, and bowed underhand. Viol consorts were popular among 16th- and 17th-century players of polyphonic ensemble music, both amateur and professional; and detailed instruction manuals for solo players on the bass viol soon began to appear in England, France, and Italy.
The lute, brought to medieval Spain by the Muslims, was by the late 15th century plucked with the fingers rather than a plectrum and became popular both in ensembles and as a solo instrument. In the 17th and 18th centuries various instruments of the lute family were often employed as continuo instruments; the player read from a figured bass line and filled in the harmonies, sometimes adding melodic ornamentation. Lutenist Luca Pianca played a large Baroque instrument (archlute) suitable for both solo and continuo playing, with a straight rather than backwards-bent neck, and five unstopped bass strings in addition to eight pairs of strings on the fingerboard.
A virtuoso school of bass viol playing held sway for about a hundred glorious years in France, from the late 17th to the late 18th century. Marin Marais (1656-1728), famous in his own time as a composer and virtuoso performer on the viol, was brought back to life in the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde, with Gérard Depardieu gamely (but not too accurately) synching the offstage playing of viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall. (Savall appears at a BEMF concert documenting the musical history of Jerusalem on May 5th.) Friday’s program started off with a suite of viol pieces with continuo accompaniment by Marais, in which Ghielmi displayed an astonishing range of viol techniques, producing sonorous chords and flexible melodic lines ornamented with arabesques and a judicious use of vibrato. The free-ranging Prelude was followed by a series of fancifully-named character pieces, including a “Muzette” that played with pseudo-rustic drone effects in both lute and viol, and “La Rêveuse,” a pensive “mood piece” that explored a series of variations on a bass pattern. Pianca’s lute accompaniment was beautifully realized, the plucked string sound a welcome foil to the bowed viol.
A group of three pieces for solo lute by Jacques Gallot (ca. 1625-ca. 1690), member of a celebrated family of lutenist-composers, opened with the curiously descriptive “Comète,” followed by a sprightly “Apollon” and a rollicking Gigue. The richness of idiomatic figuration brought Pianca’s expressive playing and virtuosic mastery of this difficult instrument to the fore. Next came a group of pieces for viol and continuo by Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745). An opening Allemande in the manner of the late Baroque dance suite, and concluding gigue titled “La Leclair” (perhaps a reference to the French family of violinist-composers?) framed two character pieces: “La Girouette,” its whirling motives evoking a twirling weather vane, and “Le Carillon de Passy,” in which tolling bell tones sounded on low strings in both viol and lute.
After the intermission we heard music by three Central European composers. Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750) was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, whose solo lute pieces were probably composed for him. His five-movement Partita for lute featured a stately Sarabande with suspended harmonies that were sometimes only hinted at by the rapidly-decaying sound of plucked strings, yet perfectly understood nonetheless. Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), born in Germany, had a successful career in London, and was famous for his improvisations. Twenty-seven such pieces for solo viol were written out and survive in manuscript in the collection of the New York Public Library. From these Ghielmi selected an improvisatory Adagio and an Allegro whose wide-ranging compound melodic line gave the impression of a tenor melody supported by resounding bass tones. The program concluded with a melodious Sonata for viol and continuo by Andreas Lidl (d. ca. 1789), an Austrian who played in the Esterházy orchestra under Haydn before moving to London.
It was a rare treat to hear such outstanding virtuoso performers on two not quite extinct yet powerfully expressive instruments. From my vantage point — front row, center — I was able to savor every nuance, every expressive detail, and wondered how much was inevitably lost in the farther reaches of this hospitable yet cavernous church. This kind of chamber music really needs to be placed in an intimate space, yet doing so would have left a large and very appreciative audience out in the cold.