Black Brittany [4:00]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Music for a while [3:29]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto for viola d’amore in d-minor RV 393 [9:28]
Garth KNOX (b. 1956)
Fuga libre for viola solo [7:41]
Hildegard von BINGEN (1098-1179)
Guillaume de MACHAUT (ca.1300-1377)
Ave, generosa / Complainte ‘Tels rit au main qui au soir pleure’ [7:22]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b.1952)
Vent nocturne: I. Sombres miroirs (Dark Mirrors) [6:58]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Flow my tears [4:03]
Vent nocturne: II. Soupirs de l’obscur (Breaths of the Obscure) [5:49]
Three Dances (14th Century): Saltarello I - Ghaetta - Saltarello II [5:48]
Pipe, harp and fiddle [5:16]
Garth Knox (fiddle, viola, viola d’amore); Agnès Vesterman (cello); Sylvain Lemêtre (percussion)
rec. December 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2157 [59:59]
Irish-born Garth Knox is a former violist with the renowned Arditti String Quartet. He has appeared on ECM albums such as D’Amore (see review), a release which was one of Glyn Pursglove’s Recordings of the Year in 2008. This kind of refined playing and eclectic mix of ancient and modern music is explored further in Saltarello.

Knox plays more than just the viola, and it is in fact the viola d’amore we hear first in Black Brittany, a clever cross between Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and Leaving Brittany by Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham. This kind of folk music reference is part of the character of this album, with fiddle playing also appearing as a close to the programme in the final track, Pipe, harp and fiddle. The viola d’amore lends a melancholy fragrance to Purcell’s Music for a While, integrating on equal footing with cellist Agnès Vesterman. It also keeps our feet firmly on the ground in the dancing character of Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto, which works remarkably and surprisingly well as a duo with cello. 

Knox’s own Fuga libre also introduces some playful folk character, but its wide ranging repertoire of technical colours and poetic gestures are filled with sophisticated counterpoint and harmonic language which marries the nature of a Bach chaconne with a kind of Berio-like theatricality. After an extended opening ‘song’ of praise to the Virgin Mary derived from Hildegard von Bingen, percussion adds contrast in the section by Guillaume de Machaut to create the feel of a slow ritualistic dance.
A big coup for this programme is the brace of works by Kaija Saariaho for viola and electronics written for Garth Knox. Vent Nocturne I is subtitled “Dark Mirrors”, and has some chilling breath noises which reflect the noise of the bow on strings. Tremolo playing, harmonics and electronic wind-harp effects also combine to generate a “wind-swept arctic landscape”. Between this and the second Saariaho work we are given a break in the form of Dowland’s Flow my Tears in as melancholy an instrumental version as I can remember hearing. Vent Nocturne II is subtitled “Breaths of the Obscure”, which again refers to the sound world conjured. Garth Knox’s own words sum up this musical place well: “Kaija Saariaho’s work explores the sound the bow produces when it is drawn across a string, a soft breathy sound, like breathing or wind … Pitch becomes breath, breath blows into wind, wind swirls into music.” There is however more melodic shaping and a greater sense of cadence, nuance and tonality in these pieces than you would expect from such a description, and Knox’s expressive response to the music reaps its own rewards.
After this extensive trip into dark imaginings and emotional stresses, we are released and rewarded with three 14th century dances for fiddle and percussion which are great fun, and played out with the aforementioned folksy Pipe, harp and fiddle, an arrangement based on traditional melodies such as the Chanter’s Song and Star of the County Down.
This is a very fine recording and a very creatively constructed programme. Recorded in the ECM’s favoured rich and comforting bath of resonance, the string instruments are detailed in sound but non-fatiguing in terms of perspective and presence. Garth Knox takes us on a journey of the emotions as well as that of 900 years of musical history and tradition, and this is a journey very much worth taking.  

Dominy Clements 

A journey of dark and light, and well worth taking.