Music Review: Boston Early Music Festival Concert—”The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute”

Viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca traced the repertoire for these baroque instruments through the centures.

The Boston Early Music Festival has been bringing distinguished performers of early music to Boston audiences for two decades. It also presents Baroque operas, exhibitions, and a well-regarded concert series at the Morgan Library in New York.

A highlight of BEMF's 20th anniversary season was Friday night's concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, by viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca. The duo have played together for over ten years, and their familiarity with each other and their repertoire makes their playing together quite special; each is a masterful musician on his own, but together they seem to breathe as one organism.

It was a formal event, compared to many of the more freewheeling early music concerts I see in New York, more like a classical chamber music recital than a foot-stomping affair—this despite the relative youth of the audience. (In New York my wife and I, in our forties, are often just about the youngest people there; not so in Cambridge.) Nevertheless Mssrs. Ghielmi and Pianca played with a youthful, if somewhat restrained, brio.

Titled "The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute," the concert traced in more or less chronological order some of the best of the repertoire for these two instruments together and separately, a repertoire which went further into the 18th century than I knew. It opened with probably the most familiar selections, a set of "picture" pieces by French composer Marin Marais. Many people were introduced to this composer and his uncannily beautiful gamba music when Gérard Depardieu played Marais in the 1991 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) with its extremely popular soundtrack. Mr. Ghielmi's fancy fretwork on the viol during "La Saillie du Caffeé" ("The Issue of the Coffee") impressed, as did the duo's sensitive, limpid rendering of the famous "Rêveuse" (dreamer); in their take, the spaces meant as much as the notes.

Mr. Pianca then played a set of three very old pieces by Jacques Gallot, opening with "The Comet." He introduced this imagistic chaconne by demonstrating how the composer depicts the fuzzy tail of the comet, then its bright fiery head, by means of an initial dissonant chord, with modern-sounding intervals, moving in increments towards a simple major triad. The set closed with a lovely, dense little "Gigue."

The chronology resumed with four duo pieces by Antoine Forqueray, representing "Le Diable" in opposition to Marais's "L'Ange." In the head-spinning "La Girouette" ("The Wind Vane") Mr. Ghielmi's left hand darted about the fretboard like a spider; in "Le Carillon du Passy" ("The Bells of Passy") ringing bass notes from the viol helped evoke the bells.

The second half of the concert opened with "Partita for Lute" by Silvius Leopold Weiss, an exact contemporary of J. S. Bach whom the latter is said to have admired; it was easy to see why, though one might wonder how closely Mr. Pianca's conversational expressiveness resembled 18th century performance style. The emotional precision of this music, conveyed here to maximum advantage by the celestial tones of Mr. Pianca's lute work, indeed suggests some of the genius of Bach. The somber "Sarabanda" made a beautiful focal point.

Mr. Ghielmi's turn consisted of two manuscript pieces for solo gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel. These had a highly improvisational quality, and Mr. Ghielmi took the rhythms so loosely, especially in the Adagio, as to make time signature seem almost irrelevant; at the center of that piece, harmony too seemed unneeded, as a long swelling single note swayed into a dissonant flatted-second "chord" in a long moment of hushed emotion.

Finally, a Sonata by Andreas Lidl had an early classical flavor, with straightforward themes and development, cantabile and Haydn-like (Lidl was at the Esterházy court with Haydn prior to settling in London). The age of the gamba and the lute was coming to a close, but it overlapped with the early classical age. Exactly what do we mean by "early music?" Pre-Mozart and Haydn? Does this work by Lidl count even though it's in a classical "sonata" form, simply because it's written for "old-fashioned" instruments? Probably not. What defines "early" rock and roll, one might just as well ask—is it the use of the acoustic bass? The short haircuts? Such definitions must be to some degree arbitrary, as this accomplished duo demonstrated in this fine program.