Music Reviews

Abel: Pieces for Viola da Gamba

The surprise couldn’t be grander.

In his liner notes Ralph Rousseau tells us that except for a handful of Viola da Gamba players, few have for a long time been aware of Carl Friedrich Abel’s Sonatas. I, too, was not all too familiar with many of them. With this TRPTK release, the surprise couldn’t be grander. It graces us with a series of richly brushed musical palettes resembling the best Bach & Sons, notably Abel’s friend Johann Christian, have composed in this genre. Moreover, with only few existing recordings, none of which in high resolution, this is a most desirable addition to the catalogue. However, for all those adoring Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, and hoping to get more of the same, please note that the sound of a Viola da Gamba is different by a far cry. 

Like the viola da braccio (violin), the Gamba family exist in different sizes down to the violone. Reading the history of these instruments it gets more complicated with each paragraph, with the Italians, French and English having their own variants. However, for laymen, the obvious difference is that it has 6 (or sometimes 7) gut strings instead of the 4 synthetic- or steel-core the violin family has. Moreover, the lower pitch and the softer, gutted strings of the Viola da Gamba have a distinct effect on its timbre. They make it sound warmer, revealing a greater tonal complexity than can be obtained by a modern Cello. Some say that it is comparable to a ‘bowed Lute’.  

In this recording, Rousseau plays an 18th-century Viola da Gamba manufactured by Georg Aman (Augsburg, Germany), subsequently converted into a small cello, and more recently restored into its original 6-string Viola da Gamba glory.

A visionary composer?

They may not have the same ingenuity as Bach’s suites, but with his Sonatas Abel went one step further. Rooted in the Baroque, developed in the classical (Mozart) era, they are in some aspects already foreboding the romantic period: “sweet, emotional, deeply moving, and elegant pieces, … one hears the new era approaching, the era of romanticism”. That’s how Rousseau characterises them. The beauty of it is that it is all true. 

There is a similarity with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose Piano Sonatas also seem to jump the Classical Period, in so far as the soloist is able to pick up the ‘hints’. Abel’s Viola da Gamba Sonatas offer interpreters the same opportunity. A wealth to find out more about. 

Much depends on the one in the middle.

A composer needs someone to convey his ideas to the listener. For a gratifying result, all three need to be up to the task: The quality of the score, the skill of the messenger and, not to forget, the susceptibility of the listener. The composer has done his part, if the listener is susceptible enough, much depends on the one in the middle, the music transmitter, or, more to the point: The interpreter. 

And who then is the interpreter, Ralph Rousseau? The excellent liner notes give full details about the recorded content and personal views but omit the customary bio of the soloist. So, here we go (briefly). Ralph Rousseau is not French. He is a Dutchman and Rousseau a ‘nom de plume’. More interestingly, he is a prototype of a Jack of all Trades with ‘cum laude’ degrees in double-bass (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) and physics (teaching and scientific research), whilst doing a whole lot more, like researching intrinsic motivation (assistant professor at Utrecht University) and heaven knows what else. 

Taken from © Rodney Kersten

Nonetheless, his ultimate love and passion lie with the Viola da Gamba. Soloist with international orchestras and conductors of Name. Several recordings on his list from Telemann (TRPTK) to Beppe: Remote Galaxy, Ashkenazy (2L), in a mixed genre ‘Chansons d’amour’, and more (Challenge Classics). An enviable track record of someone having earned his laurels. 

One of Abel’s best advocates.

There is not enough recorded material available to compare with, but after having listened to this phenomenal Gamba player, there is no doubt in my mind about Ralph Rousseau being one of Carl Friedrich Abel’s best advocates. His tonal mastery is impeccable. His pitch security, playing without vibrato, matches that of the very best. By almost scientifically searching the emotional depths of each of the Sonatas, and carefully phrasing the melodious strands, the listener is familiarized with Abel’s intrinsic motivations. A wonderful experience. And what’s more, a Viola da Gamba is meant to sing. And it does. Thanks to Rousseau’s sensitive handling of the bow. 

One may wonder why Abel’s Gamba Sonatas went out of fashion. Rousseau cites in his notes contemporary papers saying “that with the death of Carl Friedrich Abel, the viola da gamba was in effect buried alongside him.” In a wider context, one might argue, that with the advent of more powerful stringed instruments, and changing social behaviour, the Gamba became obsolete, only to resurface 150 years later, and with it the search for suitable material. 

The Sonatas as recorded here were not exactly ‘ready to cook’. As has happened elsewhere, the available manuscripts and editions contain errors and inaccuracies making it necessary for a performer to find and apply ad hoc solutions. “Sometimes,” Rousseau says, “one really can only make educated guesses”. And because not all was as clear as Rousseau might have wished for, this release carries the title: “Pieces for Viola da Gamba”.

Nonetheless, I’m sure that the listener won’t care under which title these cleverly ‘repaired’ pieces are catalogued. It is the outcome that counts. Enjoying Rousseau’s articulate and deeply touching playing the world suddenly looks like a better place to live in. What more can one hope for? This is in every sense a valuable survey one wouldn’t want to be without.

As the saying goes: It takes two to tango.

It has always been my conviction that for an optimal recorded result, it takes two to tango. Any musical reading can profit enormously from a pristine recording. The booklet lists, as usual with TRPTK, all the equipment used to capture and engineer the sound in the best possible resolution. However, expensive equipment isn’t enough. Each ‘player’ is equally important: The interpreter for conveying the score and the engineer for producing a realistic soundscape. It goes hand in hand.

Recording in a church, as was the case here, demands a lot from the sound engineer to balance out the reflections in such a way that they do not distort the sound, whilst at the same time creating a reasonable church-like resonance. Brendon Heinst has managed to do that in a way that lifts Ralph Rousseau a cut above the competition. Well done, both!

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and 

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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