If instruments are judged according to their ability to imitate the human voice, and if naturalness in art is esteemed the highest accomplishment, then the prize must surely go to the viol, which imitates the human voice in all its modulations, even in the most moving nuances of sadness and joy. -– M. Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle 1636-1637
Early music pioneer Jordi Savall, who has spent his life and career reviving forgotten repertory and neglected instruments, offered a magisterial solo recital devoted to music for the viola da gamba at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. Performing on a seven-stringed bass viol made by Barak Norman in London in 1697, Savall brought to life an instrument whose expressive range is unequaled in the modern string family.
Savall brought a whispered intensity to the first half of the program, in which he drew connections between some of the early French masters of the viola da gamba—most notably Messrs. de Sainte Colombe (père et fils) and Marin Marais—and later German works by J.S. Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel. In Savall’s masterly hands, the instrument did indeed speak with a naturalness and directness that resembled the human voice in its emotional expression and nuance. Savall sustained an aura of intimacy in these often inward looking pieces, with listeners compelled to listen ever more attentively to the quiet subtleties of music from a bygone age.
In the second half of the program, Savall turned to more extroverted music that exhibited the viola da gamba’s ability to conjure imagery and colors. These pieces were less profound though more fun and accessible, showing off the novelty of the instrument’s capacity for imitation. In “A Souldiers Resolution” from Tobias Hume’s “Musicall Humors,” Savall evoked the lively scene of an English military march, with trumpets, kettle drums, and “pell mell.” A set of energetic transcriptions of bag-pipe music—using a tuning that required Savall to cross the fourth and fifth strings of his instrument to create the “drone”—from the Manchester Gamba Book brought this afternoon of rarefied delights to a close.