This early viol’s bass notes sound like a double bass or organ. The low E sounds especially like an organ pipe. The low D has a fairly strong wolf. This instrument sounds the least like what we think of as a viol. The sound is not smooth or light, but has a graininess to it, especially with a gut C string. The word I think of is natural or “organic.” I do not use catlins (unwound gut strings) on the bottom two strings because there is not enough room to wind those thick strings onto the pegs in the original pegbox. The top D is not as beautiful as on the later viols but it is not too thin in sound. The range over the instrument is even, although the bass is certainly its strong point. The articulation is different from later ones, needing more definition to start a note making a true legato almost impossible. We have used it extensively as a consort bass.
Despite its unusual shape, this viol has a more sophisticated sound than the earlier Rose. The high D has more complexity and the instrument speaks more easily. There is less resonance than in later viols and the sound has a lot of fundamental. It has a cello-like immediacy in the articulation and is very satisfying as a bass in a consort or as a basso continuo line.
The Barak Norman has a very well balanced sound from top to bottom. It feels lighter in sound than the earlier English viols but is just as loud. There is more resonance, but the initial articulation has less chiff. It feels smoother to play. There is still the English clarity, but has a more baroque sophistication to the general sound.
This treble has what most people would recognize as a con- sort treble sound. It is rich and deep and very satisfying to play. It is somewhat monochromatic, but the sound it has is very beautiful. It is definitely more of a contralto rather than a soprano sound.
The c1685 Tielke is the viol with which I am most familiar. I have performed on it for nearly forty years, and as I played it in relation with the others, I was reminded why. I don’t have to work at all to get a full range of expression. The instrument is so responsive that the slightest change in what I do creates a change in sound or color. I realize that its inherent sound is not so much more beautiful than the others, but the complexity of its tonal response is superior to the other German instruments. It is quite loud and aggressive, as are the others, but its responsiveness makes it a joy to play.
The Tielke from 1691 is a very efficient viol, producing a lot more sound than its size would suggest. It is a beautiful, rich sound, although at the moment of the recording the bottom D string was a little cottony. Ideally it either needs a soundpost adjustment or a thinner D string if possible. It is so small that I need to use a lower chair to hold it comfortably, but I also need to use more amplitude in crossing strings. It speaks superbly and has much more range of sound and variety of tone color than the Hasert or anonymous viols. It is beautiful in the middle register and requests very expressive and legato playing.
I have been pleased to play this big viol in a number of performances of the St. Matthew Passion. Its rich sound is less nasal than French instruments, and the bass notes speak well. It also is capable of sounding decent at a′ = 440 Hz, at least for a few days, if I am playing with a modern orchestra. During this recording it was strange not to be pushing for a huge sound as I would be required to do in a big hall with a strong singer. I also noticed that without the basso continuo I needed to be bringing out the bass more than usual.
The anonymous German viol that we always called the Hoffmann was one of Jim’s favorites. It is really loud. I’m not sure how much of the sound carries, but under the ear I think it is the most aggressive viol of the collection. I’ve rarely played it and determined that I could tame it somewhat and play fairly softly on it, but it really wants to shout. Despite the loudness, it seems a bit shallow in the depth of the sound and is quite difficult to play with much subtlety. Jim used it often for continuo and particularly liked it for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, when one has to balance two violas who are usually playing as loud as possible!
The Karpp viol has a very direct sound that feels closer to the early English viols than to the other German instruments, with a bass register like a double bass or organ. It has a rather bad wolf on the low D. The middle register is extremely clear and easy to play, but the high D is not as beautiful as on some other viols. I believe the instrument’s carrying power is substantial, although it does not sound very loud under the ear. When I have used the Karpp in an ensemble with violin (such as one of the Buxtehude trio sonatas), I have been told that there is no problem hearing me. The sound is compact and simple but very satisfying, especially in the middle range.
I haven’t played the Hasert much in recent years, so it was interesting to rediscover its qualities. It has a very open sound with a little of the graininess of earlier instruments. The bottom is somewhat coarse and the top is not as smooth as the other German viols, but the middle range is quite satisfying. It also takes quite a bit of effort to go from loud to soft, but responds well to using quite a lot of bow. The general sound is a rather loud, attractive tone without a lot of nuance or complexity.
Jim liked this viol because it is loud, but I find it singularly shallow in sound compared to the rest of the collection. I must admit that I was surprised at its good tone on the recording, because it is not very satisfying to play. Its neck is quite short and it might respond better with a proper viol neck on it. It has a very smooth sound that is difficult to modulate. It is not an unattractive sound, but I find it very challenging to create much expression on it. As the newest of the old viols, it seems to have a very homogenous sound, which makes sense as the aesthetic of sound was developing in precisely that direction at the time it was made. In the early English instruments every note creates a different vibration in the viol, but with this one, every note feels the same.
I’ve never been comfortable trying to make this instrument sound like a typical consort viol. We tried using it in the Oberlin Consort of Viols when it was first restored, but it failed to match the subtle tonal characteristics of the rest of the instruments we were using. I was therefore struck by Friedemann Hellwig’s opinion that it might really be a type of viola d’amore. It has an extremely bright and aggressive sound that is difficult to “tame.” Its loud sound has a fine quality and proves to be perfectly suitable for the small body of literature for the solo treble viol written by 18th-century German composers.
I continue to love this gamba. I am not used to playing it without a harpsichord’s high harmonic partials that mix with those of the viol, symbiotically covering the edge to the sound. Without a second viol on the basso continuo line to enhance the pitch, the bass of the Bertrand is somewhat cottony. The less I press into the bottom notes, the more likely they will speak well. As I always think with a French viol: use more bow! The top string is exceptionally beautiful and capable of many different colors. I chose the variations to show the range, not only of register, but of expression as well.
Forqueray’s music is a good choice to demonstrate the Lambert. The viol has a very vital middle register and its bass notes punch out clearly. The top has always been somewhat glassy, but this movement does not spend much time in the high register. The clarity of the Lambert’s middle registers allows all the inner ornamentation and complexity to be heard. On the top D string I have to angle the tip of the bow towards the bridge rather acutely, which is exactly the technique that Jim always said would avoid squeaks. Even though he often played this viol, I always dismissed his opinion since it came from an oboe player. He was right again!
I have loved playing this viol over the years, largely because of its superb top string. The rest of the viol is challenged in the middle range by the strong wolf on the E string. I have never found good strings for the bottom strings but rarely use them in the consort playing I usually do on this viol. Nonetheless, I enjoyed using the instrument’s whole range when recording this solo piece, but was more comfortable on the high strings.
The Salomon pardessus has an extremely pretty, sweet sound. It is very even over its range and is easy to play. Its expressive range is more limited than the Guersan pardessus, but its attractive sound carries it a long way. I have rarely, if ever, performed on it because the Guersan not only has the more usual five-string configuration, but also is a masterpiece of the collection. So I was very pleased to discover what a wonderful little instrument the Salomon can be.
The most violin-like of the treble viols in the Caldwell Collection, the Guersan pardessus still sounds like a viol or even a flute when played with a lot of bow and no weight. With a little more bow weight and a slower bow speed, I can turn it towards its violin sound. That is the main reason I enjoy playing it so much. The color range is enormous and the clarity of fast passages is equivalent to any fine violin.