Early Music Review Print



Music for Midday at the University of North Carolina Asheville

January 28, 2009 - Asheville, NC:


A wintery, overcast day with a steady drizzle whispers its own quiet invitations — some read them as sleep, others as uninterrupted encounters with favorite books, and still others as opportunities to hear special music. UNC Asheville Music Department's Lipinsky Auditorium beckoned a decent midday crowd of students, faculty, and visitors to the student recital hour with the intimate sounds of music composed over 250+ years ago. The charming guest musicians playing on reproductions of period instruments were Gail Ann Schroeder, bass and treble viola da gamba, Ann Stierli, alto recorder and tenor and bass viola da gamba, and Barbara Weiss, virginal and alto recorder. The 45-minute event served as an informal introduction to both music and instruments by the players who announced their program from the stage.

The viola da gamba (“viol” for short), literally a string instrument “of the leg," is held either on the lap or between the legs, like a cello without an endpin, has frets, resembling the vihuela de mano, and is bowed underhandedly, or in the “German” style, as one sees string bassists play. The sound of the viol is totally different from that of modern strings. The timbre is more nasal, covered, muted, and rich, and blends beautifully with instruments of its own family and others, especially voice. The virginal, a keyboard instrument whose interior mechanisms (jacks) pluck the strings, has its single course of strings running perpendicular to the keyboard and was much favored by English composers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Schroeder's 7-string French baroque bass viol was built by Rheinhard Ossenbrunner, while Stierli's viols were of Chinese provenance. Weiss performed on an intriguing, quasi rectangular-shaped harpsichord known as a virginal, made by Paul Irvin. The recorders, front-blown fipple flutes, were plastic, inexpensive instruments (of Aulos make?) that the players stated they preferred them to some wooden ones.

The program opened with two fantasies for two gambas from Thomas Morley's First Booke of Canzonets to Two Voyces (1595). “Il Doloroso” featured phrases of long ascending notes countered by more active counterpoint in part two. The playful "La Caccia," like "The Hunt" of its title, consisted of two contrapuntal lines in close imitation, as in a game of tag, with each part taking turns being "It."

Next came two recercadas from Diego Ortiz's Tratado de glosas (1553), a Spanish treatise on improvisation for viol and harpsichord. Schroeder deftly executed a series of elaboration/variations to Weiss' chordal accompaniment, demonstrating the technical possibilities of her instrument.

John Jenkins (1592-1678), an English composer noted for his consort music for viols, was the composer of the next selections, two movements for two basses plus harpsichord. A lovely, lyrical "Air" was followed by a duple-metered "Allemand," where some intonation gremlins created trouble with an upper-register passage.

Two movements of a Canonic Sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann were the only music on the program for 2 alto recorders (performed by Weiss and Stierli). Totally derived from a single melodic line, the music unfolds as a duet in strict imitation. The players performed this beautifully and in tune, with only an occasional mismatch of phrasing.

The selections from the seldom-heard Parthenia In-Violata or Mayden-Musicke for the Virginalls and Bass-Viol (ca 1613) for virginal and bass viol included five charming dances of varying meters and moods. The collection features 20 pieces by Jacobean composers and elevates the virginal player to the role of soloist. Weiss's playing was precise and musical, with articulations clearly tailored to each work's phrasing.

Handel's four-movement Sonata Op. 1, no. 11 for alto recorder and basso continuo ended the program, with Stierli demonstrating her recorder chops in the piece's fast passagework and lyrical slow movements.