Bach and the viola da gamba – Paolo Pandolfo and Markus Hunninger explore two of the sonatas Bach wrote for the instrument, along with music by gamba maestro Carl Friedrich Abel
Listening link (opens in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 15 April
For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:
For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist, containing the Bach sonatas – but not the Abel, which I could not find on the service. Pandolfo and Hunninger have recorded the Bach recently, but their versions are not available – so I have chosen suitable substitutions here
What’s the music?
J.S. Bach – Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (not later than 1741) (16 minutes) (the ‘BWV’ number gives an indication of the work’s position in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue)
Abel – 6 Pieces from the Drexel Manuscript for solo viola da gamba (date not known) (20 minutes)
J.S. Bach – Viola da gamba Sonata no.3 in G minor BWV1029 (not later than 1741) (16 minutes)
What about the music?
The first question to answer here is ‘what is a viola da gamba’? It is an ancestor of the cello, gripped between the players knees and played with the bow. Although it was used mostly as an ensemble instrument to begin with, Bach, Abel and other composers began to write for it in more of a solo capacity.
The instrument used by Paolo Pandolfo in this concert has seven strings, and dates from around 1700. There is no ‘spike’ on the instrument, so the player has to grip it with their knees.
Bach wrote three accompanied sonatas for the instrument, though exactly when he wrote them is not clear. Abel is described in the BBC Radio 3 introduction as ‘the link between baroque and classical music’, and headed for London with nothing more than ‘six symphonies in his pocket’. He was a virtuoso viola da gamba player, and while in London wrote a lot of music for the instrument. This surfaced in the 19th century through manuscripts belonging to Joseph Drexel. Paolo Pandolfo stated in the introduction that Abel ‘respected the viol as a true lover respects his beloved’
Pandolfo himself came to this music initially from jazz, bringing with it his own talent for improvisation.
These are engaging and often stylish performances. Paolo Pandolfo and Markus Hunninger have a long-established chemistry in this repertoire, and their experience allows them to tastefully improvise within the confines of the written music – as the composers would wish them to do.
Pandolfo’s quiet playing in particular is sublime, and I found myself instinctively leaning forward on occasion to catch his insights. The freedom he lent the Abel pieces made them sound like brand new improvisations.
On some occasions I did feel this improvising was a little overdone, and that in the Bach especially the slow movements would have benefited from a ‘less is more’ approach, as the pulse was almost lost at times. In the faster movements however the dialogue between the instruments was a constant joy, their enjoyment of the music clear to see.
What should I listen out for?
Bach Sonata no.2
3:45 – the Bach begins with a thoughtful Adagio. Pandolfo is a model of restraint here, and with Hunninger there are some pronounced variations of the tempo
7:29 – the bright, vivacious second movement begins, using the upper register of the viola da gamba’s range. The crisp harpsichord right hand often trades melodic ideas with the gamba.
11:17 – a thoughtful slow movement, now in a ‘lower’ key (B minor) that brings out the resonance of the instrument’s lower strings. Pandolfo plays with great poise here.
16:14 – a burst of sunshine in the form of a move to D major. The gamba and harpsichord play cat and mouse, all the time shadowing each other’s moves. From 17’30” some tasteful trills added by harpsichordist Hunninger, before the instrument plumbs the depths just over a minute later. Some of Bach’s harmonic daring can be heard here, the music veering off to distant areas. Pandolfo occasionally plays two strings rather than one (‘double stopping’)
23:29 – the first of Abel’s six pieces has a free, improvisatory feel – which I assume to be Pandolfo’s license with the piece rather than an absence of bar lines. The bow flits between strings and the quiet moments are exquisitely found.
25:36 – Pandolfo secures an extraordinary bit of ‘skating’ here (not a technical term!), the bow rushing across the strings but somehow making all the notes coherent.
27:39 – this piece starts with pizzicato (plucking), which sounds unusual on the gamba, before short pieces of double stopping, culminating in the lovely passage at 31’15”. The performance here feels quite mannered, but on saying that Pandolfo does bring the composer’s thoughts off the page, making them feel fresh.
32:18 – again we hear the higher register of the viola da gamba, and Abel writes for it in such a way that it provides the accompaniment as well as the melody, thanks to lots of double stopping. There is an extraordinary passage of music from 34:12, the music rushing almost out of control, but at no point does Pandolfo lose control.
34:40 – this movement reminds me of Bach’s Sixth Suite for Solo Cello, a really lovely and rather moving slow dance.
39:04 – staying in the same key as the previous five – D major – this has a more improvisatory feel as the piece gradually grows in height of pitch. After this introduction there is a spikier stretch of music, with a distinctive theme, before Pandolfo brings the music to a very soft close at 43:40
An extended tuning episode (almost an improvisation!) before…
Bach Sonata no.3
46:51 – the start of this sonata introduces a melody very similar to the one Bach used in his Brandenburg Concerto no.3 – with a subtle difference as this piece is in a minor rather than a major key, and sounds more serious as a result. Pandolfo and Hunninger energetically navigate the contours of a lively first movement.
52:15 – as slow as the second movement was fast, this Adagio is stretched out almost to its limits by the two performers. This is not an overly indulgent performance though, as they are both trying to extract maximum emotion from the music, often by way of ornaments improvised in both parts. This does lose the rhythmic pulse on occasion.
58:54 – the harpsichord picks out the notes of the main theme, a kind of stuttering melody that the viola da gamba takes up. This is the inspiration for the debate of the rest of the movement. There is a false ending at 1:02:08 where the pair deliberately pause on a ‘wrong’ chord – before finishing more emphatically.
Want to hear more?
The ideal complement to this music can be found in Bach’s Sixth Suite for solo cello – which was written for a form of cello with five strings. Anner Bylsma plays it on Spotify here
For more concerts click here