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Angel and Devil: Paolo Pandolfo at Dumbarton Oaks

Pour nos lecteurs francophones, j'ai préparé une traduction française de ce compte rendu. Veuillez m'en excuser les fautes de grammaire et d'orthographe.

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Musica Alta Ripa at Dumbarton Oaks (May 10, 2005)

Dumbarton Oaks (May 9, 2005)
The Friends of Music, directed by Valerie Stains, host an excellent concert series in the extraordinary locale of Dumbarton Oaks, the jewel of Georgetown. Once a private home, this magnificent estate is now the property of Harvard University, but the museum and gardens it shelters are yet another of the many cultural boons we enjoy here in Washington. The famous Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks, where I heard Musica Alta Ripa play last May, is in the museum's main building, which is undergoing a major renovation right now. As a result, the concerts are temporarily being held in the refectory of the building that used to be the Director's House. It's a small and narrow room, quite intimate and seating fewer than 100 people. On Saturday night, I was seated literally right in front of the evening's lead performer, viola da gamba player Paolo Pandolfo. This gave me a great vantage point from which to see and hear the precious instrument on which Pandolfo performs, a rare French viola da gamba actually built in the 17th century and almost not restored or altered during its long history. (Apparently, Pandolfo lost an instrument he owned previously, a 17th-century Italian viol, when it was stolen on a train in Germany.)

Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gambaPaolo Pandolfo played with the premiere gamba player of our time, Jordi Savall, in his group Hesperion XXI. He has since struck off onto a solo career of his own and teaches and leads his own group. Prior to his work with Savall, at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (Basel, Switzerland), Pandolfo studied with Enrico Gatti and Rinaldo Alessandrini, and he has worked on recordings with Savall, Alessandrini, and Fabio Biondi. It's quite a résumé, and his playing on Saturday night certainly made clear why he has had those opportunities, as he took us on a tour through the music of three giants of French viol music.

The art of the French viol, or viola da gamba, was more or less invented by a great master in the second half of the 17th century, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. His skill was matched only by his secrecy, for he guarded his works and techniques jealously. As shown with moderate historical accuracy in the excellent film Tous les matins du monde, a young player named Marin Marais had to be as shrewd as Ulysses to learn the art from his severe teacher, going so far as hiding in Sainte-Colombe's studio to watch him practice. Pandolfo's first half combined the works of both student and teacher.

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J. S. Bach, Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, arranged for viola da gamba, Paolo Pandolfo
The music on Pandolfo's stand, as I could see plainly from where I was seated, were facsimile copies of Sainte-Colombe's manuscripts. Collectively called Pièces de viole, they contain a selection of his best works, from which Pandolfo drew a typical suite, the form of which -- Prelude, Allemande, a triple-meter Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Chaconne -- is the basis for a whole genre. The viol is a tricky instrument, six strings of moderate volume and reliability, to which Sainte-Colombe added a seventh, very low string, featured to great effect in his music. Very quickly, Pandolfo proved his mastery of the complicated embellishments, fragmented polyphonic lines, and arpeggiation typical in this repertoire. Sainte-Colombe was already doing most of the things that sound so extraordinary in Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, at about the time that Bach was being born. (In fact, Paolo Pandolfo made a recording of the Bach suites, or rather his adaptation of them, rather liberal at times, for the viol. I need to listen to that again.) This suite's concluding chaconne, on that omnipresent four-note descending bass pattern (see my other comments on the chaconne or passacaglia here and here), was mesmerizing in Pandolfo's hands, like a magical incantation or litany.

Pandolfo was joined on all but the prelude movement by Thomas C. Boysen on either Baroque guitar or theorbo and a young harpsichordist from France, Marie Gelis. Both made excellent supporting contributions, although Pandolfo was the lead voice of this ensemble. In that role, he gave a humorous introduction to the two famous pieces by Marin Marais, beginning with La Labyrinthe, a program suite that depicts a naive A major melody lost in a maze of foreign keys. The group that Pandolfo now leads, Labyrinto, takes its name, I believe, from this work. It is a consummately Baroque piece -- dramatic, witty, sparkling, ever-changing, permeated by dance -- and obviously dear to Pandolfo's heart. Accompanied by theorbo and harpsichord, Pandolfo's lost melody soared in exultation, whined and shivered in despair, questioned, answered, wandered. This performance was a superlative example of the expressive, almost vocal power of the viol's sound. At the end, we were overjoyed to follow that poor melody up its little glissando ladder back into A major. The concluding chaconne, an enigmatic bass pattern other than the traditional descending minor tetrachord, was a marvel. Marais's musical tribute to his departed teacher, the Tombeau de Mr. de Sainte-Colombe, in which we can hear snatches of the master's works, was a fitting end to the first half.

Thomas Boysen gave us two works for theorbo to open the second half, a Prelude and Chaconne en rondeau by Robert de Visée, the guitar teacher and personal lutenist of Louis XIV (or as Boysen said charmingly in his accented English, "Ludwig XIV"). This composer's job was to follow the King of France throughout his day, walking behind him or sitting near him, playing to divert the royal ear. Boysen introduced de Visée as "the world's first walkman," a quip that got a lot of laughs. This chaconne was the third of four such pieces on the program. While interesting and very well performed, its inferiority in the company of the masters of the viol revealed that the demands of de Visée's position were probably acceptable only to a composer of lesser talent.

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Antoine Forqueray, Pièces de Viole avec la Basse, Book 1, Suites 1-5, Paolo Pandolfo, with Guido Balestracci, Eduardo Eguez, Rolf Lislevand
This was certainly not the case with the concert's final composer, Antoine Forqueray, who was once contrasted as the Devil to Marais's Angel, because of the fiendish complexity of some passages of his music for viol. However, by the middle part of the 18th century, when Forqueray's career was at its apex, the viol was on its way out of favor. In the pieces Pandolfo chose from Forqueray's first and third suites, I occasionally had the sensation of a formidable player and composer grasping at every possible effect, trying to impress. This music is extraordinarily complex and varied, and the descriptive function is evident from the titles, no longer just names of dances but named for individual women, like portraits. (Pandolfo's recording of all five Forqueray suites appears to be out of print, or perhaps just unavailable in the United States.) In this performance, there were well-executed and humorous exchanges of motifs among all three players, as well as an entertaining contrast of colors and textures. This chaconne, named for La Morangis, uses a major key descending tetrachord, with an extended middle section in the minor mode. It was daringly inventive harmonically and a fine conclusion to what was a concert of extraordinary beauty.

For Paolo Pandolfo's other recordings, including some of the pieces reviewed here, you have to contact the recording company, Glossa, directly. I would very much like to hear all of them.

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