Jordi Savall wakes old musical instrument from a long sleep

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Jordi Savall, the magician of early music, performed the viola da gamba at the Phillips Collection. (David Ignaszewski)

The viola da gamba, said Jordi Savall, “began a long sleep” around 1800, when the instrument fell out of favor. Savall is one of the best gamba players in the world, and on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection he took audiences through a figurative awakening kiss, performing a series of works dating back a few hundred years. years before sleep begins in a great awakening. presentation that took his seven-string viola bass, built in 1697, from its darkest depths to its high, shiny table.

Not that audiences necessarily heard what the instrument sounded like in the hands of, say, 17th-century composer Tobias Hume, whose “Musicall Humors” were bright little sound vignettes, including illustrations of various aspects of life. of a soldier (“Trumpets”; “Walk Away”). As Savall pointed out in remarks on stage, when people started playing the viola da gamba again in the 20th century, they had no tradition of playing the viola da gamba. performance to lean on – “they had no idea.” Savall, however, has plenty of ideas, sometimes playing with sharp bow strokes that streak the strings with the flavor of metal, sometimes with pizzicati soft and lute (in a bourrée by JS Bach) which fell from the strings in small soft drops of its round. In “Why Not Here” by Thomas Ford, he mixed the bow lines and the pluck to the left of the strings in one only fluid line, although uneven.

There is a quality of monastic purity in Savall’s approach, but none of the exaggerated respect that is sometimes found in the contemplation of ancient masterpieces. He spoke of the instrument the same way he played it: with a frankness born of years of knowledge, offering one piece after another.

Its program dates back to the end of the 18th century to the end of the 16th century, and from Italy to Germany and France – including two beautiful contrasting pieces by Marin Marais, “Les Voix Humaines”, a soft fog of The double chords remained deliberately down-to-earth, and “La Sauillante”, a lively, aggressive and virtuoso dance with a bagpipe-like drone – in England.

The Manchester Gamba Book, which dates between 1580 and 1640, contains pieces written for 20 different tunings of the instrument. Savall chose the latter, “The Bag-Pipes Tuning,” which involved, among other things, crossing the fourth and fifth strings. The gambe is capable of evoking the whistling buzz of the bagpipe, and Savall ended the concert (before continuing with a reminder of Celtic music) by playing the final phrases of the final piece faster and faster, until that the music fades into a whirlwind of light, but never completely losing control.

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