The viol became obsolete around the end of the Baroque era, supplanted by the cello, which occupied approximately the same pitch range with considerably more assertiveness, brilliance and agility. But it still had its devotees (the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example) well into the age of classicism, and today it is enjoying a spectacular revival -- if anything about that gentle, slow-paced, fuzzy-sounding instrument can be considered spectacular.
In any case, the viol (also known by its Italian name, viola da gamba) may have more devotees and players today than at any time since the 17th century -- and it is probably being played at a higher average level of technical proficiency than ever before. At least that seemed to be the case last night, when the New York Consort of Viols (Lucy Bardo, Judith Davidoff, Susan Iadone and Rosamund Morley) played at the United Church at 1920 G St. NW.
The program, focusing on English and Italian music, spanned a bit more than a century, from the time of Diego Ortiz (1510-1570) to Henry Purcell (1659-1695). It gave each of the group's members a bit of solo opportunity but focused on the viol's rich repertoire of ensemble music.
The blend of tones, from treble to bass, was remarkably smooth -- partly because these are extremely skilled players, but also because instruments of this family work together particularly well in ensemble playing. The styles ranged from relatively simple dances to elaborate, free-form fantasias, and a special sort of pinnacle was reached in two sets of divisions (essentially, discussions by two instruments on ways a melody can be ornamented or altered) by Thomas Tompkins. All the performers were excellent; Davidoff had moments of absolute glory.