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Bach on the modern viol

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Yesterday afternoon I took some time to sample some of the students of Scott Pingel in the Double Bass Studio Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I have now attended enough master classes and recitals for this instrument to expect some attention to be given to movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello. I even had a chance to chat with one of the students once about the challenge of taking music composed for an instrument tuned in fifths and playing it on one tuned in fourths.

Yesterday afternoon’s recital, however, also included two movements from BWV 1027, which was composed for gamba with a keyboard part that is not strictly a continuo but rather makes the composition a duo sonata. This was a far more appropriate selection, since the bass is the only instrument in the modern orchestra that is a member of the viol family, referring both to its physical structure and its tuning in fourths. On the other hand most gambas are fretted and tend to have more than four strings.

Nevertheless, anyone who puts in a fair amount of time listening to bowed string instruments will begin to recognize that, because of the structural differences, the viol sonority is distinctively different from that of violins and violas. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that the basic effect is that, in the viol family, more of the upper harmonics are stronger, while the lower harmonics, including the fundamental, are somewhat weakened. At the same time the overall spectrum is narrower. Thus, while the violin has a wider spectrum, the viol has a less biased distribution of weight across its narrower spectrum.

At a more subjective level, this meant that, last night, one could appreciate the sonorities Bach may have had in mind in BWV 1027, even if the instrument being played was both larger and more modern. On both counts this made for a better coupling with the piano, which was being playing instead of a harpsichord. Through this coupling one could still appreciate the “duet qualities” of this sonata, making the performance a suitable model for how Bach’s music can be played properly on modern instruments.

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