The viola da gamba, Jordi Savall said, “started a long sleep” around 1800, when the instrument fell out of widespread favor. Savall is one of the world’s leading gamba players, and on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection he took the audience through a figurative kiss of awakening, playing a range of work that extended back a couple hundred years before the sleep began in a wide-awake presentation that took his seven-stringed bass viol, built in 1697, from its darkest depths to its high, bright top.
Not that the audience was necessarily hearing what the instrument sounded like in the hands of, say, the 17th-century composer Tobias Hume, whose “Musicall Humors” were bright little vignettes of sound, including illustrations of various aspects of a soldier’s life (“Trumpets”; “March Away”). As Savall pointed out in remarks from the stage, when people started playing the viola da gamba again in the 20th century, they had no performance tradition to draw on — “they had no idea.” Savall, though, has a lot of ideas, playing now with vivid bow strokes that zinged across the strings with the tang of metal, now with gentle, lutelike pizzicati (in a bourrée by J. S. Bach) that fell from the strings in little soft drops of rounded sound. In Thomas Ford’s “Why Not Here,” he blended bow lines and left-hand plucking of the strings in a single fluid, if uneven, line.
There is a quality of monkish purity to Savall’s approach, yet none of the exaggerated reverence one sometimes finds in contemplation of ancient masterworks. He talked about the instrument the same way he played it: with a directness born of years of knowledge, offering one tidbit after another.
His program reached back from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 16th, and from Italy via Germany and France — via two beautiful contrasting pieces by Marin Marais, “Les Voix Humaines,” a gentle fog of double-stopped chords that remained deliberately earthbound, and “La Sautillante,” a lively, aggressive and virtuosic dance with a bagpipe-like drone — to England.
The Manchester Gamba Book, which dates from between 1580 and 1640, contains pieces written for 20 different tunings of the instrument. Savall chose the last one, “The Bag-Pipes Tuning,” which involved, among other things, crossing the fourth and fifth strings. The gamba is well able to evoke the bagpipes’ wheezy droning, and Savall ended the concert (before segueing into an encore of Celtic music) by playing the concluding phrases of the final piece faster and faster, until the music blurred into a bright whirl, but without ever entirely losing control.