Wigmore Mondays: Hille Perl & Lee Santana – Dreams and Dances of the Sun King

Hille Perl (viola da gamba), Lee Santana (theorbo, above)

Louis Couperin (c1626-1661) Prélude in D minor (1:54-3:08)
Jean de Sainte-Colombe (1658-c1701) Les Couplets (3:10-8:50)
Marin Marais (1656-1728) Suite du troisième livre de pieces de viole – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande & Gigue (10:23-14:18)
Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) Le Leclair from Pieces de viole (15:57-22:38)
Marin Marais Le Badinage; Le Labyrinthe (from 4ème livre des pieces de viole) (24:32-38:06)
Robert de Visée (1655-c1732) Prélude; Les Sylvains de Mr Couperin; Muzette (all for solo theorbo) (39:16-47:33)
Marin Marais Les folies d’Espagne from Deusième livre de pieces de voile (49:34-59:18)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30 April 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

It is not often we have the chance to enjoy a concert of music for the combination of viola da gamba and theorbo, but the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3 gave us that privilege with the vastly experienced team of Hille Perl and Lee Santana.

Perl plays a seven-string instrument, and if you’re not familiar with the viola da gamba it is essentially an early cello, but without a spike – so you have to grip it between the knees when playing to stop it from slipping. With seven strings this instrument has a wide range, and thanks to a carefully chosen programme we were able to appreciate its very different qualities at each end of its range.

In support was Lee Santana, using two different theorbos. When watching a player like this in action there is always a worry that the instrument’s long neck will take out the other occupants of the concert platform, but thankfully this did not occur! The timbre of a theorbo is very appealing, a kind of more mellow early version of the guitar, and both instruments had a lovely subtle resonance from the Wigmore Hall acoustic to help them.

Their program was based around the reign of the 17th century Sun King, Louis XIV of France, who loved to have music played for him during mealtimes and in his court. Some of the music here could easily accompany a meal, though some was pleasingly energetic and clearly written for a more vigorous form of dancing.

Perl began with a florid Prélude for solo viola da gamba from Louis Couperin (1:54 on the broadcast link), showing off the wide melodic range of the instrument, with wonderful resonance on the lowest note – an open ‘A’ string – and a broad, slightly mellow treble. Then Santana joined almost imperceptibly, in the same key, for Les Couplets, with the unmistakable lilt of a triple time dance – before a more improvisatory section over a set harmonic pattern, building to an impressive and vigorous finish.

The Marais, a collection of movements from a much bigger suite, began with an expansive Allemande (10:23), a slow dance form of German origin, then a graceful French Sarabande (12:10), with more vibrato applied by Perl. 13:28 a brisk Gigue.

The Forqueray piece (15:57), a tribute to the composer Leclair, made some formidable demands met head on by Perl’s virtuosity, again running like a form of chaconne (using a set pattern of chords). Listen from 20:16 to Perl’s rapid passagework, the bow flitting across the strings.

Le Badinage (from 24:32 repeats quite a sombre figure to hypnotic effect, crossing the strings on both viola da gamba and theorbo – and here the mellow tone of Perl’s instrument was ideal, despite an explosive interlude or two. Following this, Le Labyrinthe (28:26) felt more ceremonial, before heading into the higher register, and then stretching out into a much more substantial set of variations over a set chord progression. Once again, brilliantly played with plenty of room in terms of keeping a natural rhythm.

We then heard three pieces for solo theorbo by Robert de Visée, beginning with the free-spirited Prélude (39:16). The graceful Les Sylvains de Mr Couperin followed, then a Muzette (44:08).

Finally we heard a hugely impressive performance of the 32 variations making up Les folies d’Espagne (from 49:34), bringing both instruments together and utilising the practice of double stopping (more than one string on the viola da gamba played simultaneously). It was a stylish tour de force!

Further listening

You can listen to almost all of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, which includes recordings already made by Hille Perl:

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