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Viola da Gamba Ascendens

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J. S. Bach, Suites for Solo Cello, P. Pandolfo (viola da gamba)

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C. F. Abel, Music from the Drexel Manuscript, P. Pandolfo (viola da gamba)
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote music for the viola da gamba retrospectively -- museologically, one could say, Bach's encyclopedic tendencies being an irresistible compulsion -- but also affectionately. Bach's beloved employer, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, played the instrument and employed a gamba virtuoso, Christian Ferdinand Abel, in his orchestra. Abel and Bach became close friends in Cöthen, often standing as godfather to each other's children. Abel's son Carl Friedrich later studied with Bach and went on to a brilliant career as a gamba virtuoso and composer, later even partnering with Bach's son Johann Christian to present a concert series in London.

Paolo Pandolfo, a leading performer on the viola da gamba in our time, reunited the two composers by playing some of their music -- both featured on recordings he has released on the Glossa label -- at the Library of Congress free concert series on Saturday afternoon. I have been keenly following Pandolfo's visits to the Washington era since a 2006 concert at Dumbarton Oaks, where I was sitting so close to the performer that I could read the music on his stand. There is no better way to appreciate this most intimate of instruments, an experience that the warm acoustic of the Coolidge Auditorium also afforded. Pandolfo's recording of his viola da gamba adaptation of Bach's solo cello suites is not as far-fetched as one might suspect, since Bach may have written the pieces for Abel the elder, who played both cello and viola da gamba.

Truth be told, some of the suites work better on the gamba than others. The G major suite (No. 1, BWV 1007), played first, did not always sit easy, with uncomfortable high notes at the end of the Allemande and some technical struggles in the complex Gigue. Still, the gamba's flexibility and greater number of strings allow a player like Pandolfo to give a sense of improvisatory freedom to the work, keeping the pulse of the Prelude and the Allemande very free and even improvising a brief intonatio to the suite. The second suite was the C minor (No. 5, BWV 1011), which concluded the recital, and it worked much better on the viol. Pandolfo made good use of the bold, resonating strings for the low notes that punctuate the prelude, with a crisp, well-delineated articulation of the tangle of voices in the fugal section. The spidery runs, very soft, possible on the instrument served the chipper gavottes well, taken here in strict meter, especially the flowing triplets of Gavotte II.

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Joan Reinthaler, Viola da gambist Paolo Pandolfo at the Library of Congress (Washington Post, January 30)
While he played on his regular instrument, a mostly unaltered 17th-century bass viol, for the Bach pieces, staff at the Library of Congress convinced him to play a selection of Abel's music from the Drexel Manuscript (recorded by Pandolfo a couple years ago), on an instrument from the library's collection, a 1708 viola da gamba made by Pieter Rombouts in Amsterdam. It was striking how much more comfortable music actually written for the bass viol sounded, with virtuosic demands suited to the idiosyncrasies of the instrument. The slow movement, in particular, much like the sarabandes of the Bach suites, with their spectrally soft mixture of pizzicato and bowed passages, was affecting. In response to rousing ovations, Pandolfo offered three encores, beginning with a lovely, sad chaconne by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils (announced in French) and ending with a reprise of the slow movement by Carl Friedrich Abel. In the middle was one of the performer's always diverting and beautiful improvisations, indicated by Pandolfo moving his music stand aside. He introduced the piece with a sly reference to the obituary published in the London Morning Post when Carl Friedrich Abel died in London, to the effect that Abel's instrument, the viola da gamba, would likely die with him. As Pandolfo's wry shrug at that remark indicated, the jury is still out on that one, as long as musicians like Paolo Pandolfo are around.

Paolo Pandolfo joins members of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society -- Marc Destrube (violin) and Kenneth Slowik (harpsichord) -- for a concert this Sunday (February 5, 7:30 pm) at the National Museum of American History, a program of music by Rameau with a lecture introduction beginning at 6:30 pm.

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