musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"La Gamba"

Mika Suihkonen, viola da gamba
Ballo della Battalia
Dir: Mika Suihkonen

rec: Nov 21 - 24, 2009, Kauniainen, Nya Paviljongen
Alba Records - ABCD 301 (© 2010) (68'57")

Antoine FORQUERAY (c1672-1645): Chaconne; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Folies d'Espagne; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-1570): Quinta pars (La Ruggiero); Recercada I (Passamezzo Antiguo); Recercada II (Passamezzo Moderno); Recercada III (Passamezzo Moderno); Recercada IV (La Gamba); Recercada V (Passamezzo Antiguo); Recercada VI (La Romanesca); Recercada VII (La Romanesca); Recercada VIII (La Gamba); Christopher SIMPSON (c1602-1669): Ground in D; Ground in e minor; Ground in G; Ground in a minor; Prelude in D; Prelude in e minor; Prelude in g minor; Prelude in a minor

Sources: [1] Diego Ortiz, Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la musica de violones, 1553; [2] Christopher Simpson, The Division-viol, 1665; [3] Marin Marais, Pièces de viole [2e livre], 1701

Maija Lampela, viola da gamba; Eero Palviainen, lute, guitar; Stefanos Hirvonen, Jarmo Julkunen, guitar; Andrew Lawrence-King, harp, guitar; Annamari Pölhö, harpsichord; Ricardo Padilla, percussion

This disc presents a programme of music from the three countries where in the 16th and 17th centuries the viola da gamba was most popular: Spain, France and England. All pieces are based on bassi ostinati, musical patterns which are repeated throughout a musical composition. Several names refer to such patterns; one of them is La Gamba which gave this disc its title.

These patterns all find their origin in the renaissance, but they were used well into the 18th century. The programme's thread are compostions by two exponents of composing music based on bassi ostinati: Diego Ortiz and Christopher Simpson.
Ortiz was one of Spain's most prominent composers of the 16th century. His recercadas are part of his treatise Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la musica de violones. The term violones refer to the viola da gamba, but his treatise could be used by any instrumentalist who wanted to extend his knowledge about ornamentation. The second part contains eight recercadas for viola da gamba and keyboard over bassi ostimati. All of them have been included in this programme.
Christopher Simpson was one of England's most virtuosic viol players and the most important writer on music. In 1659 he published The Division-Violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground, which was reprinted in 1665 under the title The Division-viol. The third part of this treatise is devoted to "The Method of ordering Division to a Ground". Included are a number of pieces for viola da gamba solo (the Preludes played here) and for viola da gamba with basso continuo (the Grounds).

The third country which is represented here is France, where the popularity of the viola da gamba lasted longer than in England and Spain. Until the middle of the 18th century composers continued to write music for it, despite the strong competition of the 'Italian' instruments violin and cello. At that time Marin Marais had already died. He was generally considered one of the greatest gambists of his time. He published five books of pieces for viola da gamba and bc, between 1686 and 1725. The second book of 1701 includes the Folies d'Espagne, a series of 32 couplets on one of the most popular ground basses of the baroque era, La Folia.
The other great gambist of that time was Antoine Forqueray, who was a different personality and who - unlike Marais - wanted to incorporate Italian influences into his compositions. The latter word is not quite correct, though, as he never published any of his works. He emphasized the importance of improvisation, and didn't like to play fixed music. The only pieces by Forqueray are those which were published by his son Jean-Baptiste. But musicologists are still not sure as yet whether these are really by Antoine, or rather by his son, who pretended them being written by his father. From this oeuvre we get a chaconne, one of the most popular forms in French music in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Many suites included a chaconne, and no opera could do without at least one.

The programme is interesting and well-considered in that it brings together music from three countries around a specific subject. This means that despite the stylistic differences between Ortiz, Simpson, Marais and Forqueray, this disc isn't just an amalgam without inner coherence. Unfortunately the interpretation is not exactly well-considered. Mika Suihkonen has had the bad idea of adding percussion to all pieces by Diego Ortiz. I have really no idea what may be the reasoning behind this. It doesn't make the music any better nor does it increase the level of performance. It is first and foremost very annoying, and it also becomes stereotypical when really every piece by Ortiz is played this way.

It doesn't hide the rather stiff and often awkward playing of Mika Suihkonen, which makes the pieces by Ortiz not very attractive. It is even worse in the unaccompanied preludes by Simpson which lack every amount of imagination. His Grounds are not a great deal better. The two pieces by Marais and Forqueray are a bit more convincing, but especially in Forqueray's chaconne the loudness of the basso continuo is damaging the performance.

So all in all there is little which speaks in favour of this recording. I have heard all pieces of the programme in better performances. In her programme notes Minna Lindgren talks about the phenomenon of improvisation in the baroque era, constructing a connection with practices in modern music, in particular jazz. Whether this holds water I don't know. Fact is that there are some statements in the notes which are definitely incorrect, like Simpson's pieces being rooted in the renaissance and not representing the Italian fashions of the 17th century. The fact that Simpson added a basso continuo part to his grounds suggests otherwise. Also not true is that The Division Viol was first published in 1667. I really can't see any reason to recommend this disc - on the contrary.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

CD Reviews