Far more than just dance suites.
Charlotte Gardner 2007
When did you last walk into a record store thinking, 'I really fancy buying a disc of viola da gamba music today'? That’s what I thought, which is why I’m so keen to bring this new recording on the Hyperion label to your attention. The viola da gamba isn’t an instrument we naturally associate with solo performance these days, so it’s a particular pleasure to be shown just how deserving it is of the soloist’s spotlight.
For those of you not au fait with early musical instruments, the viola da gamba or 'leg viol' is a six-stringed instrument, played with a bow, and held between the legs. The cello would be its closest match today, and it sounds similar too, but softer and more mellow. Whilst it was all the rage in 16th century England (Henry VIII was a great fan), by the time Carl Friedrich Abel made London his home it was out of fashion and rarely heard. However, Abel’s concerts sparked a revival of the instrument, with notables such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Edward Walpole taking up lessons.
This disc comprises twenty four out of Abel’s thirty surviving unaccompanied pieces for viola da gamba, six of which are recorded for the first time ever. Without wanting to resort to lazy comparisons, Abel’s pieces are reminiscent of J S Bach’s solo cello suites, so if you like them then you’ll like these. They are far more than just dance suites though, both in terms of the frequently florid, technically demanding style (listen to the extraordinary multiple stops in the fugue), and in terms of their emotional range. Sensibility, or the practise of articulating direct and strong emotions, was all the rage in the arts world at the time, and Suzanne Heinrich beautifully draws this out of Abel’s writing. Charles Burney wrote at the time that Abel’s viola da gamba seemed to breathe the notes, and I think he’d be similarly complementary of Heinrich’s playing, were he alive and critiquing today.