Paolo Pandolfo & Markus Hunniger at Wigmore Hall – Music for viola da gamba by Johann Sebastian Bach & Carl Friedrich Abel

Sonatas for Viola da gamba & harpsichord – in G, BWV1028; in G minor, BWV1029
interspersed by…
Carl Friedrich Abel
Selections from The Drexel Manuscript

Paolo Pandolfo (viola da gamba) & Markus Hunniger (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Arnold Jarvist

Reviewed: 16 March, 2015
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Paolo Pandolfo

A veteran of Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX, with whom he played throughout the 1980s, Paolo Pandolfo is a virtuoso on that most rarefied of instruments, the viola da gamba. This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall, in which Pandolfo was partnered by harpsichordist Markus Hunniger, was a real treat for anyone who appreciates the viol’s uniquely soft, eloquent tones. The bass member of the sixteenth-century viol family, the fretted, six-stringed gamba (as it became known) somehow survived through the Baroque era and even, as Pandolfo’s programme proved, a little beyond.

The two Sonatas for gamba and harpsichord by J. S. Bach – works probably written in Leipzig – showcased Pandolfo’s silky timbre and innately idiomatic way with Baroque dance. These works may not be Bach at his most profound, but they are full of appealing, tuneful music and – in the masterful hands of Pandolfo – they were often deeply moving. His partnership with Hunniger was a close one and, although these accounts were not blemish-free – not least because the gamba is a difficult instrument on which to maintain immaculate tuning – the artists more than compensated for occasional technical slips with beguiling panache and élan.

Separating the two Bach pieces was music by Carl Friedrich Abel – the son of Bach’s gamba-player at Cöthen, Christian Ferdinand Abel, who himself came from a dynasty of German gamba virtuosos. The son’s renowned prowess took him throughout Europe and eventually, in 1762, to London where he worked with J. C. Bach. Thomas Gainsborough painted Abel’s portrait, and subsequently acquired a number of his scores, including 29 movements for unaccompanied gamba – from which Pandolfo performed six.

Abel’s unfussy, rococo style may seem an odd fit with what was, by then, an anachronistic instrument, but Pandolfo made an absolutely compelling case for this magical, intimate music. Elegant Minuets and other ethereal dances were treated with entrancing grace and refinement, and there was plenty of virtuosity on display too – including some beautifully poised harmonics to round off the final movement. This was a truly magical combination of Renaissance antiquity and forward-looking Classicism.

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