Thursday, January 17, 2008

Able Abel

It should come as no surprise that I have an affinity for the viola da gamba, if only because of its indirect relationship with the lute—more especially the vihuela. The vihuela, which is tuned and played like a lute, was played in two forms, by hand and by bow. I believe the hourglass shape of the instrument lends itself better to bowing than the pear shape of the lute. Indeed, hold a vihuela vertically and it looks like a small viol. Indeed, the Italian name of the vihuela was viola. There is no escaping a connection.

This focus is somewhat unique with me because I tend to favor solo instruments that I have played (however ineptly). I feel a greater connection when I understand the mechanics and have at least a glimmer of an idea of the secrets. The bow is beyond my comprehension, but it is magical, giving an instrument the expressiveness of the voice. I guess I'm attracted to the viol because it is what a lute would sound like if it could sing like a human. And, of course, there is the wealth of beautiful 17th century French music devoted to the bass viol.

Like the lute, the viol was a dying instrument in the 18th century. By mid century it was basically dead in France (as was the lute), but lived a niche existence in the German-speaking countries. One of the very last masters was none other than Carl Friedrich Abel, student of Sebastian Bach, pal of Johann Christian Bach. In fact, like J.C., Abel migrated to London, where the two promoted concerts for a while. Abel briefly reinvigorated interest in the instrument through exceptional musicianship. There is an interesting story that he intentionally eschewed technically challenging music to assure he could play both beautifully and effortlessly; I don't have a problem with that, as I would much rather hear a beautiful, but simple, piece played perfectly than some complex machination as an athletic workout.

I had heard snippets of Abel's solo gamba music, but just snippets—in particular, an arpeggio study that shows of the instrument very nicely. Paolo Pandolfo plays three pieces, including one of these arpeggio pieces that he names Arpeggiata, on his marvelous CD, A Solo, (perhaps I should write of that recording later, as it is a favorite). I was excited to learn that there was a new recording devoted to these pieces by a performer I had not heard of before, Susanne Heinrich. This has turned out to be a marvelous recording on all three fronts: the music is memorable, the sound is top notch, and the performance has just the right combination of heartfelt simplicity that seems to live up to Abel's reputation. This is a collection of individual miniatures, four have been formed into a brief "sonata", but there is little of great weight here. Many of the pieces have the charm of Sebastian Bach's cello pieces. A special favorite is a masterful three voice fugue, WKO 196, that I'm sure would have made Abel's teacher proud.

I very much like Heinrich's warm and enthusiastic, yet sensible approach. She takes the same "Arpeggiata" (WKO 205) with as much feeling, but less license than Pandalfo—a very nice contrast between a German and Italian artist. I didn't recognize Heinrich as a soloist, and was surprised to learn that she is a frequent member of the Palladian Ensemble, a favorite of mine (a sad commentary on how carefully I study the names of the individuals); I have nearly all of their recordings—the ones I don't have are oversights!

I'm not done with the able Abel: like Krebs, he is one of those students of Bach that is too easily overlooked.