Subtle, spare sounds speak volumes
CAMBRIDGE - Friday’s Boston Early Music Festival recital by Vittorio Ghielmi and Luca Pianca, on viola da gamba and lute, respectively, could be heard as a reminder that “virtuoso’’ and “virtuous’’ carry the same etymology, that the term now used for technical prowess once also referred to learning and taste. Both instruments show off more quietly than their modern descendants; both players allowed their skill to share the spotlight with the intelligence with which they deployed it.
The gamba, for instance, is softer-edged and slower to speak than its larger cello cousin, with a more prominent dash of white noise from the bow; quick, busy Baroque ornaments produce either a sudden, nasal rustle or an abrupt, lacy delicacy. Ghielmi excelled at using such shifts of texture to rev up the engine of each phrase, especially in combination with dramatic, flexible rhythm, as in an opening set of works by the great French violist Marin Marais, or a pair of solo, written-out improvisations by Carl Friedrich Abel. Ghielmi showed imaginative flair in his decoration; in Marais’s “La Muzette,’’ for instance, the combination of droning open strings and Ghielmi’s subtly sliding inflections even conjured echoes of Middle Eastern music. A rhythmically heavier set of pieces by Marais’s rival Antoine Forqueray brought out the instrument’s darker hues, Ghielmi leaning into thicker chords and shaping more dense blocks of sound.
Pianca’s accompaniment in the Marais and Forqueray was spare, efficient scaffolding, but with a keen sense of musical pressure points, adding sparked accents to particularly pungent suspensions. Further gentle boundary-pushing emerged in solos: a trio of pieces by the 17th-century Parisian lutenist Jacques Gallot included his far-out “La Comète,’’ with Pianca lovingly lingering over Gallot’s surprisingly jazzy, space-age harmonies; while in a “Partita’’ by Silvius Leopold Weiss, a performer admired by Bach, Pianca emphasized shifting-weight syncopations while capturing the music’s light-footed charm.
The duo finished with Andreas Lidl’s “Sonata II’’; Lidl was active well into the Classical era, and his music showed it, with a central Adagio in the style of Lidl’s one-time boss Haydn. The movement also showed the changing nature of virtuosity, featuring a daring, impeccably executed run up to the highest limit of the fingerboard. But the pair’s encore returned to the earlier, virtuous virtuosity: Louis de Caix D’Hervelois’s placid and ineffable “Plainte,’’ unfurled with grace and warmth.