The popularity of the Viola da gamba (or 'viol of the leg') peaked in the Baroque period, and although it has achieved a modicum of recent popularity, it is not considered part of the standard roster of chamber or orchestral instruments. As its name suggests, this instrument is played with an underhand-held bow and rested, like a cello, upright, between the legs; or, for the smaller treble-sized viol, delicately upon the lap. Unlike instruments in the violin family however, a flat backboard is realized and five to seven strings are present; the tuning is also quite different and, like its close relative the lute, requires the player to navigate a series of fingerboard frets. It is a very light instrument and was traditionally constructed from Chinese snakewood or Brazilwood producing a restrained, languished and resonating sound not prone to playing quick, heavily accented prestissimo passages (sorry, no Paganini-style Sturm und Drang here!).
Carl Friedrich Abel (1732-1787) came from a long line of Germanic composers and virtuosic da gamba players. Residing in London for most of his adult life after fleeing Dresden in the wake of Frederick the Great’s 1757 campaign, Abel became a close friend of J. C.(Christian) Bach, culminating in the famous Bach-Abel subscription concert series at Carlisle House from 1765 until 1781. Like Bach, he became chamber musician for Queen Charlotte and even found time to mentor a young W.A. Mozart during his London tour of 1764/65. (In fact, Abel’s Symphony Op. 7 #6 was copied by the prodigy for study purposes and until recently was inaccurately attributed to Mozart in the standard catalog as K.18). Not simply a man of music, Abel was also a close friend of Thomas Gainsborough and other visual artists of the period; portraits of the composer by Gainsborough now hang in The Huntington and at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
As The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan, 1980) states regarding Abel’s style, “[his] music is generally genial, energetic and light-hearted… he rarely used minor keys… [his] harmonic style is exceptionally rich and expressive” (vol. 1, p. 13). An apt description for this week’s music CD selection entitled Abel’s Six Sonatas for Viola da Gamba (Redwood Call # MS.V ABEL.C 1994). Recorded in 1994 on the ARTA label, Petr Hejný (of the Prague-based Stamic Quartet) displays his remarkable musical abilities throughout these solo pieces. Although perhaps not as crisp and vibrant-sounding as Paolo Pandolfo’s more recent 2009 Glossa-label offering of Abel’s da Gamba music, this recording provides a much more intimate-sounding and warmer experience. It is obvious that Hejný opted for the “rich and expressive” over the “energetic and light-heated” aspects of this music. There are unfortunate moments when the recording sounds a bit too muted and claustrophobic, but this is certainly the exception and not the rule as it would make a wonderful mid-morning selection any time of the year!