CD review: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos

VIvaldi: The Complete Viola d'Amore Concertos CD cover

VIvaldi: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos CD cover

Rachel Barton Pine, Ars Antigua connect on Vivaldi’s viola d’amore concertos

The concert violinist, fascinated with this richly resonant instrument since her teen years, “sings” Vivaldi in a new voice

By David Abrams

When Rachel Barton Pine places her six-stringed 1774 Nicola Gagliano viola d’amore under her chin, 12 strings spring to life.

The concert violinist’s new recording of Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos, released earlier this month, showcases a strange but sonorous Baroque instrument that has long remained hidden in the shadows of the more popular stringed instruments. Over the course of 79-or-so minutes, Pine and company retrofit the ears and sensibilities of the 21st century listener back to the 18th century.

The viola d’amore is a bowed instrument with 12 or 14 strings, half of which are played (bowed or plucked) and half of which are there simply to resonate to the pitches of the played strings. Its appearance in the late 17th century to Western music is thought to have originated in the Middle East, where instruments with resonating strings were fairly common. Like the violin, the viola d’amore is held under the chin.

A seven-stringed viola d'amore (seven playing strings and seven resonating strings). The instrument was commonly tuned to the same key as the work performed.

A seven-stringed viola d’amore (seven playing strings and seven resonating strings). The instrument was commonly tuned to the same key as the work performed.

The sound of this instrument is colorful, enriched by the added harmonics of the resonating strings. And because the viola d’amore is tuned scordatura (custom tuning that matches the key of the work played), the instrument can accommodate difficult technical effects that would prove clumsy and unidiomatic on traditionally tuned instruments.

If there’s a drawback to viola d’amore, it’s the instrument’s delicate sound that makes it difficult to project over the orchestra. Such is not a problem with recorded media, however, where balance issues are easy to mitigate.

In the liner notes that accompany the CD, Pine writes that her fascination with the viola d’amore dates back to her teen years, though she never got a chance to actually play one until 2007. A few years afterwards she managed to acquire an original-condition, 12-string 1774 Nicola Gagliano viola d’amore — the instrument used in the present recording. In a happy coincidence, the top of this viola d’amore was made from the very same tree as the top of Pine’s 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin (the instrument she uses in all her baroque violin performances.) 

The sonorous effects of the viola d’amore’s resonating strings are especially evident during the slower middle movements (Largo, Andante) of the concertos in this collection. One such lovely movement is the Andante from Concerto in A Major, RV 396, which offers the listener a convincing taste of what this instrument has to offer. Vivaldi is credited with elevating the scope of Baroque middle (slow) concerto movements to more than just a perfunctory bridge between the more exciting outer two Allegros. These movements are like Italian opera arias, “sung” by the solo instrument.

To my ears, the most aria-like of these slow movements is the enchanting Largo of the Concerto in A Minor, RV 397. This concerto, perhaps more so than the others, showcases the viola d’amore’s deep alto register, particularly during the two Allegro movements. In spite of the occasional lower-register passages, however, many of the works on this album sound as if written for violin — hardly surprising, since the viol d’amore is properly labeled a treble viol.

It takes more than just a period instrument to sound Baroque, of course. Historically-informed performers and ensembles are expected to possess an in-depth knowledge of customary performance practices of the era. Pine has the credentials, having performed frequently with numerous early music ensembles during the past two decades. She has also presented early music clinics around the country and serves on the board of directors of Early Music America.

Her grasp of the stylistic elements of these Baroque works are especially evident during her execution of the melodic ornaments and embellishments throughout the eight concertos, which are invariable tasteful and stylistically appropriate. Still, for a well-seasoned performer in the historically-informed movement Pine curiously takes unwelcome liberties with the pulse and tempo in the faster outer movements.

For example, her sometimes abrupt changes in tempo tend to dampen the otherwise metronomic-steady momentum in the fast (Allegro) outer movements of both the Concerto in D Major, RV 392 and Concerto in A Minor, RV 397. Baroque concerto movements typically have one mood, or affection, and taking such liberties mid-movement creates mood swings more properly suited to the Classical era.

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine

This one criticism aside, there’s lots to admire in Pine’s manner of performance in this collection. Her technical facility is beyond reproach — with secure fingerwork, warm tone production and cleanly articulated double-stops, as may be heard in the opening Allegro of the Concerto in D Minor, RV 393. Equally impressive is Pine’s seemingly effortless execution of the rapid scalework passages and embellishments in the opening movements of the Concerto in D Minor, RV 395 and Concerto in A Major, RV 396. The antiphonal, call-and-response dialogue with lutenist Hopkinson Smith in the in the final movement of the Concerto in D Minor, RV 540 was truly charming.

Chicago-based period music ensemble Ars Antigua (an alternate spelling for the more usual Ars Antiqua, a term denoting 13th century music), accompanied Pine with precision and gusto. The period-instrument winds and horns tend to sound hollow in tone (and awkward in trills) during the works that showcase them, such as the playful Concerto in F Major, RV 97, but that’s part of the “joy” of experiencing early music ensembles. Save for the bassoon playing in the Largo movement of this concerto, whose pitch is almost painfully sharp, intonation is remarkably good for period-era winds.

I was surprised how modern the Ars Antigua’s string section sounded in this recording, both with respect to size and brilliance of tone. Chalk this up to the unintended consequence of the recording process — which alters the acoustical properties of the period instruments. But while live performance may provide a more authentic listening experience, only a recording can provide the full experience of the viola d’amore in all its glory.

Chances are, the collaborative effort of Pine and Ars Antigua will resonate your strings.

Details Box:
What: CD review: Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos
Who: Rachel Barton Pine and Ars Antigua ensemble, with lutenist Hopkinson Smith
Label: Cedille Records, CDR 90000 159
CD release date: Sep. 11, 2015 (also available as digital download)
Running time: 79 minutes and 11 seconds
Ordering information:

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