Notes and Editorial Reviews
Thoroughly rewarding … illustrative of the bass viol’s beauty and expressiveness.
In 1605 Captain Tobias Hume (who deserves an honourable place in the fine line of English eccentrics) published his collection called The First Part of Ayres or, to give it its full title: The first part of ayres, French, Pollish, and others together, some in tabliture, and some in pricke-song with pavines, galliards, and almaines for the viole de gambo alone, and other musicall conceites for two base viols, expressing five partes, with pleasant reportes one from the other, and for two leero viols, and also for the leero viole with two treble viols, or two with one treble. Lastly for the leero viole to play alone, and some songes to bee
sung to the viole, with the lute, or better with the viole alone. Also an invention for two to play upon one viole. The volume carried a striking address ‘To the understanding Reader’, in which Hume is concerned to make important claims – claims he felt it necessary to make – for the status of the solo viol and its music:
“I Doe not studie Eloquence, nor professe Musicke, although I doe love Sence, and affect Harmony: My Profession being, as my education hath beene Armes, the onely effeminate part of me, hath beene Musicke; which in me hath beene always Generous, because never Mercenarie. To prayse Musicke, were to say, the Sunne is bright To extol myselfe, would name my labours vaineglorious … from henceforth, the statefull instrument Gambo Violl, shall with ease yeelde full various and as devicefull Musicke as the Lute. For here I protest the Trinitie of Musicke, parts, Passion and Division, to be as gracefully united in the Gambo Violl, as in the most received Instrument that is, which here with a Souldiers Resolution, I give up to acceptance of all noble dispositions”.
Anyone (whether or not they are of noble disposition) not yet persuaded of the virtues of the bass viol could do much worse than listen attentively to these two CDs by Sarah Cunningham, which offer a thoroughly enticing conspectus of music for solo viol ranging in date from 1605 to 1981. Both CDs have been issued previously – the first as Virgin Veritas VC7 91451-2, the second as Seagull Records SGR 1. Both are full of “devicefull Musicke”.
Hume’s volumeumeH of 1605 was one of the earliest substantial collections of music for unaccompanied viol. Hume’s music is never short of vivacity and invention, whether in the whimsical charm of ‘Tinckeldum Twinckeldum’ or, more substantial and dignified, almost meditative, ‘Captain Hume’s Pavan’. ‘Love’s Farewell’ and ‘Love’s Galliard’ are delightful pieces, playful and full of unexpected twists and turns.
The first French collection of music for solo viol did not appear until 1685; this was the Pièces de Viole of Le Sieur Demachy. Demachy studied with Nicholas Hotman (who was an accomplished performer on both viol and lute), and was a protagonist of (and propagandist for) a chordal manner of playing which clearly drew on the traditions of the lute, whereas the school of Saint-Colombe tended to put greater emphasis on melody. The two suites heard here – each in seven movements, with the identical sequence Prélude-Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue-Gavotte-Menuet – have a slightly old-fashioned air to them (remembering that the more sophisticated first collection by Marais was to be published in the very next year). But, even if they lack the subtle elegance and delicacy of Marais’ best work, these suites have a more robust grace and a certain expressiveness of their own that makes them of enduring interest.
The D major Suite from Marais’ Pièces de Viole, Ier Livre has a range of mood and metre which was perhaps just beyond Demachy’s reach. Though he could hardly have escaped the long and intimate relationship between lute and viol, and all that it implied, Marais’ work has a fluency of melodic line which steps beyond anything to be heard in Hume and Demachy. Adjectives like sophisticated and sensuous, luxurious and haunting all seem to demand use. This really is astonishingly beautiful music and while I have heard other performances I would, finally, prefer to this excellent one by Sarah Cunningham, I suspect that such distinctions are matters of the merest subjectivity in music which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
The German tradition is represented by sonatas from the pens of August Kühnel, Johann Schenk and Georg Philipp Telemann. Kühnel, another accomplished performer on the viol, studied and played in Paris and London (where he was heard in 1685) though most of his career was spent in Germanic musical centres such as Zeitz, Dresden, Munich, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Weimar and Kassel, in most of which he held posts at one time or another. Sarah Cunningham puts it well herself when she says that Kühnel’s work has a “distinctly German flavour, more intense than the English, less suave than the French”. His five movement Sonata has a gravity of manner which carries a fair emotional clout, even if we are infrequently reminded of the origins in dance of such movements as the Sarrabande and Giga which close it.
The Sonata by Johann Schenk, another gifted viol player, from his volume L’Echo du Danube of 1706 (or before), is an altogether more flamboyant affair. Born in the Netherlands, Schenk spent much of his working life in the German courts, although all his music was published in Amsterdam. He seems to have been something of an eclectic, musically speaking. There are English elements in his work, but it is clear too that he has listened to both French and Italian exemplars too. In this Sonata, No. VI from L’Echo du Danube, such heterogeneous musical elements are fused (or at least tellingly juxtaposed) in a work full of a sense of theatricality and display.
Telemann was not, so far as I know, any kind of specialist when it came to the viol. This sonata appears, indeed, to be his only composition for the solo viol but – as Telemann seems unfailingly to do, whatever instrument he writes for – he writes music which sits entirely comfortably and shows an understanding of the instrument’s distinctive possibilities. There’s some attractive melodic writing here, cast in forms entirely natural to the instrument, and assured advantage is taken of the viol’s capacity to provide its own accompaniment. Telemann’s sheer musical intelligence and fluency never ceases to amaze.
The end of the original tradition of the viol is conventionally said to come with the work of Carl Friedrich Abel. Abel was born in Cöthen; he may very well have studied with J. S. Bach at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He worked with Hasse’s opera orchestra in Dresden and then, in the late 1750s he moved to London and worked there for the remainder of his life, except for a short spell back in Germany between 1782 and 1784. His playing of the viol attracted many admirers in London, and it is not hard to see why when one hears some of his surviving short pieces (preserved in manuscript) for the unaccompanied viol, full of expressiveness and charm.
After the instrument’s effective decease (which, in a sense, coincided with Abel’s own death) it had to wait until the ‘early music’ movement of the twentieth century for its revival. When that revival happened it came to involve not only musicians taking up the instrument so as to play the music originally written for it – whether as solo or continuo instrument – but also the creation of some new music for it, the work of modern composers attracted by the instrument’s possibilities. Sarah Cunningham’s programme includes two such works.
Richard Cornell’s Reis Glorios Variations is built upon a tune by the troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh and was written specifically for Cunningham when she and the composer were both studying in Boston (where Cornell now teaches) in the 1970s. It’s an intricate, well-crafted piece, which speaks of the viol tradition without being hamstrung by it or settling into mere pastiche. The use of pizzicato is especially effective and the whole is intriguing. The excellent John Joubert is represented by his Tombeau (written in memory in memory a young guitarist, Timothy Tunnicliffe, who died in 1975. The piece’s subtitle indicates something of its relationship to a famous ‘original’, which is only heard in something like full form towards the end of Joubert’s work, which is poignantly affecting.
Sarah Cunningham’s playing throughout both discs is of a high order. Just occasionally one feels that some slightly lighter bowing might have paid dividends, but such quibbles pale in the face of the quantity of fine (and sometimes unfamiliar) music this two-disc set gives us the chance to hear and relish.
There is something distinctively expressive about the viol, well played. In his Harmonie Universelle (Paris, 1636) Marin Mersenne writes: “Certainly if instruments are valued in proportion to their ability to imitate the voice, and of all artifice we esteem most the one which best represents the natural, it seems that one cannot refuse the prize to the Viol, which counterfeits the voice with all its modulations and even its most significant accents of sadness and joy”. Those “significant accents of sadness and joy” are certainly to be heard abundantly on this pair of very rewarding discs.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Variations on "Reis glorios" by Richard Cornell
Sarah Cunningham (Viola da gamba)
Period: 20th Century
Length: 5 Minutes 41 Secs.
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