In BEMF’s 11pm slot last night at Jordan Hall, Philippe Pierlot presented an hour-long showcase for his solo bass viol consisting primarily of 17th– and 18th-century repertoire, while also arguing compellingly for J. S. Bach’s innovations in the solo cello suites.
On his Thomas Allred (London, 1625) instrument, Pierlot gave four uninterrupted sets joined as “Life, Death, and Life.” He began with five pieces by Captain Tobias Hume (c. 1579 – 1645), an English composer, gamba player, and mercenary soldier; the music is from his 1605 collection, The First Part of Ayres, French, Polish, and others (published in London by John Windet). Pierlot’s title reflects Hume’s military life as does the multicultural collection of music and the sounds used. The opening “The Spirit of Gambo” combines rhythmic and lyrical gestures, while “Hark, hark” (“Harke, harke” in Windet’s edition) is full of sonic contrasts. “A Souldier’s Galliard” is an a-b form triple meter dance, combining the popular step and depicting posturing and a lightness of step and tune with hints of introspection. In “Deth” (although Windet gives this title as “Death”) we hear a meditative wish for a quiet demise; rounding out this set was “Life,” a livelier introspective music. Most striking in this selection was “Hark, hark” with its use of bowed and plucked strings, and a col legno bowing notated as “Drum this with the backe of your Bow” and performed here more like a battuto (the wood of the bow being dropped on the strings for a great height). While the title might prepare us for something bird-like or declamatory, it is a sign for varieties of sound to come.
The second set moved us to the later 17th century, with selections from M. Demachy (title page) or M. De Machy (program), Pièces de violle en musique et en tablature. From this collection we heard one of the eight dance suites: Prélude, Sarabande, Gavotte en Rondeau, Chaconne, and ending with a Fantaisie en Rondeau by Sainte-Colombe le fils (seemingly from a different collection and Alfieri’s notes give no indication why it appears here). In this set we heard the improvisatory prelude and set of dance movements which still cleave to their original steps.
The third set brought us into the early 18th century with J. S. Bach’s Suite for Violoncello Solo No. 5 (BWV 1011). At this point the format becomes clearer: the recital draws a progression from individual dances to multi-movement Baroque suites, offering up an archaeology of the Bach solo instrument suites. Pierlot imagined this c minor suite, written for cello with scordatura and also extant in a version for lute (BWV 995), as an example of virtuosic viol playing. Much of the technical challenges faced by cellists disappear when this music is performed on a seven-string bass viol—although the sound-world is markedly different from a performance on cello. Here the Baroque suite has taken on a more standardized shape: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte I & II, Gigue. Here from improvisation we progress through a changing landscape of meters, rhythms, and characters, moving away from rustic dances towards an abstracted idea of them.
The final act of this viol drama jumped forward to the living Belgian composer (and organist), Bernard Fouccroulle (b. 1953), with his Trois pièces pour viole. In Prélude – Petites secondes, grandes septièmes – Accords obliques we heard the Baroque principle of musical structuration meet twentieth-century harmonic language and extended instrumental technique as Fouccroulle writes for the bass viol as though for an organ in a post-Messiaenic soundscape.
Recalled thrice to the stage, Pierlot offered Arpeggio by the 18th -century viol virtuoso C. F. Abel as an encore.
The night’s chief pleasure came from hearing a skilled performer showcase this instrument. With the acoustical power of the violoncello there comes access to a richness of tone, especially in the lower register. The aesthetic of the bass viol is a more restrained palette; here G-d, as well as the beauty of a good performance, is in the details. Pierlot gave a very detailed and nuanced reading of the repertoire in a nicely presented, coherent, recital.