Friday, April 29, 2011


Sts. Simon & Jude Church
April 28

An early music specialist with a modernist touch.

The viola da gamba is not the first instrument that comes to mind when you think of emotional expression. A mainstay of European classical music ensembles during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the viol, as it is more commonly known, is a cello-sized bowed string instrument, minus the tail spike; instead of propped on the floor, it is held between the legs. Like many early music instruments, it has an archaic sound, refined but narrow, even compressed, compared to the bigger and broader dynamics of modern instruments. Many performers play it with a matching restraint.

So it was treat to see Petr Wagner give a seven-string viol a good workout last night, playing with the finesse of a virtuoso and the energy of a rock guitarist. Wagner has a distinctive style that starts with the way he holds the instrument – not squarely in front of his body, but tucked at an angle between his right thigh and left knee, which changes the bow approach slightly and gives him a sharper sound. His fingering is emphatic and his bow work is deliberate, producing a beautiful legato. He likes to decorate a piece with grace notes and crisp flourishes, and is not above pounding the strings with the bow occasionally.

This style suited his material very well – a Le Pères et les fils pairing of works by Marin and Roland Marais, and Antoine and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray. The livelier pieces of the senior composers gave him an opportunity to work with colors and intensity, while the more elegant compositions by the sons were studies in stately, sophisticated interpretation.

Sharp attacks on the strings set the tone for the opening Piéces de Viole by Marin Marais, a favorite at Versailles and a remarkably prolific composer – he wrote nearly 600 pieces for the viola da gamba alone. Wagner was especially good at drawing out the melancholy undercurrents of Marais’ work without sacrificing any vitality or flair. He was even better with an assortment of similar pieces by Antoine Forqueray, another favorite of Louis XIV and, according to Wagner, “a terror to all booze joints in Paris.” Wagner pulled an amazing range of sounds out of six of his Piéces de Viole, playing with the same wild exuberance that reportedly characterized Forqueray’s own performances.

To the more staid work of Forqueray Jr., Wagner added a soaring quality that lifted the pieces both musically and aesthetically. And in a complex suite by the younger Marais, he found a deep well of emotion; at one point, the instrument itself seemed on the verge of tears. This would be an impressive accomplishment for any musician. But seeing someone squeeze that out of a viola da gamba was nothing short of a revelation.

It should be noted that Wagner had a stellar supporting cast providing the basso continuo. Viola da gamba player Hana Fleková and Baroque guitar/theorbo player Jan Krejča are regulars with Prague’s finest Baroque ensembles, Collegium 1704 and Collegium Marianum. Shalev Ad-El, who sat modestly in the rear at the harpsichord, is a star in his right, an accomplished conductor and well-regarded early music specialist. And if that wasn’t enough, Wagner’s young daughter ran up on stage as the performers were taking their bows and jumped into her father’s arms.

It said something about the emotional tenor of the evening that the father-daughter moment seemed sweet rather than mawkish. Viola da gamba recitals don’t usually inspire that kind of display, even from young family members. But judging from the reaction of the audience, which brought Wagner back for two well-deserved encores, he touched a lot of hearts in an appreciate crowd.

And for a good primer on the viola da gamba:

No comments:

Post a Comment