Garth Knox, viola d’amore: Works by Hume, Preston (attrib.), Neuwirth, Samandari, Stewart and Haas, Orpheum Annex, February 13, 2016.

This recital by Garth Knox gave us an opportunity to hear a master violist and witness the innovative spirit of an artist who has always been so close to the frontier of ‘new music’.  Originally a member of Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain and the famed Arditti Quartet, he has worked directly with many of the 20th century's leading composers: Ligeti, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez, Kurtág and Henze.  And now, over the last decade, Knox’s budding passion for the viola d’amore -- leading to a number of strongly praised recordings that highlight the unique claims of this esoteric instrument from Baroque times to the present. There is no question that Knox is a violist of redoubtable technique and sensitivity, but also an artist that always seeks, rather than shies, from challenge.  The current programme was most educational, and certainly brought the viola d’amore to life.

For most audiences, the viola d’amore is probably best known through Vivaldi’s concertos for the instrument, though Biber, Telemann and Christoph Graupner wrote for it as well.  Supplanted by other stringed instruments by the end of the 18th century, modern composers as diverse as Hindemith, Respighi, Henri Casadesus, and Bruno Maderna continued to find a selective intrigue in its hues and resonances.  Like the modern viola, it's played under the chin, and its fingerboard is fretless.  Its sound holes are a ‘flaming sword shaped’ – delightfully Baroque! -- and it has a flat back, rather than the slightly convex one shared by members of the modern violin family.  Also, unlike the modern instruments, the viola d'amore is typically strung with six or seven strings made of catgut or equivalent for bowing, and seven metal strings underneath that vibrate in tandem – so-called 'sympathetic' strings.  These strings may be tuned independently. Common tunings between the pairs of strings are the octave or unison but, as Mr. Knox amply demonstrated, almost any combination, no matter how outlandish, could be a possibility. 

Both the first and second halves of the concert were introduced by historical compositions. A piece from Tobias Hume’s pavanes for viola di gamba (1605) provided an initial baseline for revealing the remarkable sound of the viola d’amore: at once soft, with an otherworldly timbre, perhaps a sonic interbreeding of the viol and mandolin. There is a shimmery, silvery resonance, like a beautiful agile dancer, draped with sheer veils. The sympathetic strings shadow the bowed, creating a timbre that shifts and changes in unpredictable ways. It’s a haunting sound, with a hollowness in unexpected places but also expressing a fullness of overtones that take longer to dissipate than one might expect.  The other work was a 16th century keyboard ground of disputed authorship, Uppon la mi re, attributed to English organist Thomas Preston (d. 1563). Joined by viola students Joshua Gomberoff and Fahlon Smith, Knox's performance was simply mesmerizing, and exhibited flawless ensemble leadership, to which Gomberoff and Smith responded with relish.  Remnants of the contenance angloise are still present in the work, and Knox's sense of period harmony was masterful.

Moving forward now almost 400 years, in Olga Neuwirth’s piece Risonanze... (1997), Knox amplified (with a guitar pick-up) the sympathetic strings, which increased the mandolin-like qualities of the instrument.  Neuwirth’s writing is firmly competent and auditions like an etude for composer exploring the potential of the instrument, especially the types of resonances the instrument's unique design makes possible. Vancouver composer Farshid Samandari's piece Memoirs Relived was commissioned by Vancouver New Music for this event, an interesting piece that exploits the Persian aspects of the viola d’amore sound.  The composition is a ‘mash-up’ of Persian classical and Indian raga with the formal structure of contemporary chamber music.  The subject matter, and the range of human emotions considered, does suggest a composer of considerable interiority. 

American composer Donald Stewart's audacious RELATIO was another premiere.  In it, Stewart has embraced a post-modern aesthetic by choosing as his vehicle of expression not the pitches themselves, but the extended techniques of the bowed string instruments, put together with a strong architectural sense.  Stewart allows the physical phenomenon of vibration to be its own self-referential subject.  Pitch centricity is around D and G#, and detailed analysis might reveal a nascent arch-like form. Certainly present is the Bartokian ‘cell,’ that is then used melodically or harmonically, alone or in combination with other cells.  In RELATIO, different bowing techniques give the piece form.  These techniques are commonly known in English by their Italian monikers: sul ponticello- to play with the bow near the bridge, producing a brittle sound, heavy in harmonic partials; or an amplification of this, molto ponticello; and col legno battuto- to strike the strings with the stick of the bow, rather than the hair (most infamously used by Berlioz, but first recorded as an instruction to musicians in a work by Tobias Hume).  The viola d’amore, with its vibrational super-abilities, responded to this treatment by creating remarkable blocks of texture and timbre in the aural space -- a piece I would wish to return to!

Perhaps the most rewarding piece of all was by the esteemed micro-tonal composer Georg Friedrich Haas: Solo for Viola d’Amore (2000).  Haas does not simply experiment with sound, he ‘speaks’ with it, and in this performance Knox submitted himself totally to Haas’s voice, pushing harmony onto new territory cleared by the largely European composers of ‘spectral’ music. As is well known, spectral music philosophically rejects the Western tuning system of equal temperament, and seeks to use the inherent characteristics of acoustical phenomena to inform the musical choices of the composer.   Timbre is a key part of this, and it is no great mystery why Knox and Haas’s timbral explorations produced a work of such high rhetorical and emotive quality.  The work begins in a largely monophonic manner, explosive in arpeggiation, with Knox’s articulation a miracle of dexterity.  It calms to more gentle bowing, during which the sympathetic strings are plucked with the left hand, emitting a sound of such pure sweetness of tone it makes the heart melt. Gradually harmonic materials are built up in a sort of E major, effectively becoming a one player string quartet. As the piece slows to its conclusion, it reclaims the relative harmonic simplicity of its beginning, and creates a place of pure calm.

Haas’s style naturally bears some similarity to both György Ligeti and Hugues Dufourt, but this work also made me think of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites, specifically BWV 1008 in D minor, in its deep sense of harmonic probing.  The variety in the instrumental possibilities offered by the instrument was no less a participant in the final result.  Thus, Haas frequently alternated the use of the two sets of strings from independent to unison. The sympathetic strings were also amplified, their volume (and prominence) being controlled by the performer.  At one point, in order to use the bow on the sympathetic strings – while playing -- the hair was released from the stick at the frog, which was then inserted between both sets of strings, reattached, and used to bow the sympathetic strings! Somehow this was all done by magic. (I have since been informed by Mr. Knox that this was due to temporary technical demands, and not intended as a permanent feature of the piece.)

A most exhilarating and treasurable evening of music from a master!

© Kate Mackin 2016