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Gentleness and Melancholy

Kaori Uemura (viola da gamba)
Rec. 2019, Eglise Saint-Apollinaire, Bolland, Belgium
RAMEE RAM1915 [67:08]

In the renaissance period the viola da gamba was one of the main instruments. Much music was written for a consort of instruments of the same family, such as viols from treble to bass, and it was also used for the accompaniment of singers, for instance in England, mostly alongside the lute. Around 1600 the musical landscape in Europe changed drastically with the introduction of virtuosic music for melody instruments, such as the violin and the cornett, and of the basso continuo. In the course of the 17th century, the viola da gamba gradually disappeared from the music scene in Italy, but in other countries - England, France, Germany - it held its ground. It was often given a solo role and in Germany it was frequently used in sacred music.

If today we hear music for a viola da gamba as a solo instrument, it is usually supported by a chordal instrument: a harpsichord, an organ or a theorbo. However, there is also a considerable repertoire of pieces for viola da gamba without accompaniment. Several French composers of the 17th century wrote such pieces, and even when Marin Marais published his first book of pieces for the viola da gamba, it was intended at first for unaccompanied viol. It was only later that he added a basso continuo, as this had become the rule. Kaori Uemura recorded a programme of pieces which in most cases were originally conceived for a performance without an accompaniment. Given what I wrote above about the status of the viola da gamba in Italy, it does not surprise that we don't find any Italian pieces in the programme.

It opens with three items from a collection of songs and viol pieces by Tobias Hume, one of the oddest characters in the first half of the 17th century in England. He claimed the superiority of the viola da gamba over the lute, which caused an angry reaction from John Dowland. Hume, a professional soldier, was one of the first in England to compose virtuosic pieces for the viol. A number of them are character pieces. Hume also wrote songs, and the theme of Love's Farewell is very song-like, and is followed by divisions.

The next pieces bring us to France. That is to say: Jean de Sainte-Colombe was one of the greatest viol virtuosos of his time, but his son, about whom very little is known, lived in England for most of his life. For a long time Jean's Christian name wasn't known, and he was usually referred to as Sieur de Sainte Colombe. The American gambist Jonathan Dunford discovered his Christian name. He also found strong evidence that he was a Huguenot, which would explain that he never had any official position at the court and that at the end of the 17th century he disappeared from public life. This could have been the effect of Louis XIV revoking the Edict of Nantes and declaring protestantism illegal. It could also explain why, according to a newspaper, his son lived in London in 1718. Jean has become best known for his concerts for two viole da gamba. Here we get a prelude which gives some impression of his brilliance. It is followed by a moving tribute by his son, whose Christian name is not known. It is a specimen of a specific French genre, the tombeau, which composers often wrote at the occasion of the death of a friend, a teacher or a loved one. Kaori Uemura, in her liner-notes, nicely explains the story in this piece, which opens with a long lament, followed by rapid passages which may well express his father's exuberant style.

Next is a confrontation between two composers who were considered each other's opposites, even though Marin Marais was the pupil of Antoine Forqueray. The latter was said to play like the devil, Marais like an angel. Forqueray seems to have had a rather difficult character, maltreating his son Jean-Baptiste. To date, musicologists speculate about how much music by Antoine has come down to us. His son published a set of five suites for viola da gamba under his father's name and the same suites in a harpsichord transcription under his own name. However, as it is known that Antoine burned most of his oeuvre, as he did not want anyone else to play it, there are strong suspicions that the gamba versions are also from Jean-Baptiste's pen. The Muzette played here may be one of the few 'authentic' pieces by Antoine. Marais is represented by a chaconne, which was one of the most popular genres in France. An opera usually had a chaconne in the fifth act, and many instrumental suites also included such a piece. This chaconne is a superb specimen of this genre and a testimony of Marais's brilliance. At the end we get another, Les voix humaines.

Germany is represemted by two composers of the late baroque period. Carl Friedrich Abel was the son of a gambist, who was close to Johann Sebastian Bach, and when Carl Friedrich settled in London, he closely cooperated with Bach's youngest son Johann Christian in the organisation of the so-called Bach-Abel concerts. He acted as the teacher of members of the higher echelons of society, among whom the viola da gamba was still a popular instrument, even though in public performances the cello had overshadowed it. Most of Abel's pieces are either written for his own use or for his pupils. The two pieces included here are technically not that demanding, and may be specimens of his educational material. That does not diminish their musical value in any way.

Some years ago, violists were pretty excited when they learned that the twelve famtasias Georg Philipp Telemann was known to have written, but were considered to be lost, were discovered. Since then these pieces have been recorded complete several times, and Kaori Uemura included one of them in her programme. As one may expect from Telemann, who mastered almost any instrument of his time, it is idiomatically written and one can understand that violists are very happy with this collection of fine pieces.

Kaori Uemura is a well-known figure in the world of early music. She has participated in numerous concerts and recordings, but she seems to never take a leading role. This is apparently her first solo recording. It is regrettable that she has not made such recordings previously, because we get superb performances here. First of all, she deserves praise for her selection of music. Pieces for viola da gamba without accompaniment are not often performed and recorded, and from that perspective, one can only welcome this interesting programme. And then one can only admire her playing, which is very sensitive in the tender pieces. She convincingly demonstrates those features of the viola da gamba which in the course of time, up until our time, have attracted so many composers and audiences alike. However, the viola da gamba can also act forcefully, such as in the Tombeau by Sainte-Colombe fils, and here Kaori Uemura plays with aplomb and without any restraint.

This is a very compelling recording which lovers of the viola da gamba should not miss. And in case you do not know the gamba very well, try this disc and you may get hooked.

Johan van Veen

Tobias HUME (c1569-c1645)
The Spirit of Gambo [02:50]
Captaine Humes Pavan [04:02]
Love's Farewell [02:10]
Jean DE SAINTE-COLOMBE (fl 1658-1687)
Prélude [03:31]
SAINTE-COLOMBE le Fils (c1660-c1720)
Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le pére [14:10]
Fantaisie en Rondeau [02:16]
Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745)
Muzette [02:24]
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Chaconne [07:05]
La Léon [04:54]
Le Badinage [04:48]
Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787)
Solo in D minor (WKO 205) [02:07]
Solo in D minor (WKO 208) [05:26]
Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Fantasia in G minor (TWV 40,32) [07:15]
Les voix humaines [04:00]

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