Viola da gambist Paolo Pandolfo — performer, recording artist and teacher — may be the darling of gamba players around the world, but his concert at the Library of Congress on Saturday was more an occasion of interest than of pleasure.
His recordings of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (in his arrangements) are well known, so it was no surprise to hear his improvisational, almost French, take on the first and fifth suites of the set that he played, with a group of six short dances by Carl Friedrich Abel in between. What was unexpected was the effect, in the clean acoustics of Coolidge Auditorium, of Pandolfo’s dry, almost austere tone production on music that Bach wrote originally for the warm resonance of the cello. It was a little like examining an X-ray version of the suites: all bone, without any cushioning muscle and fat. Pandolfo’s recordings have a reverb overlay that softens all this.
On the viola da gamba, with its six strings (the cello has four) and relatively flat bridge, some of the challenges Bach poses to performers in these pieces are little less difficult. But Pandolfo’s arrangements, with their beefier chords and more extravagant ornamentation, level the field. Even with all this taken into account, the delicacy of Pandolfo’s touch on the broken chords and scale passages, almost like the soft strumming of a lute, was impressive.
Abel’s dances, written for the viola da gamba, fared better in the hall. Pandolfo was a little more outgoing here, whereas in the Bach he was so into himself that it wasn’t really clear where his initial tuning-up ended and the Bach began. The boundaries and the shapes of the Abel, by contrast, were clearly and expressively defined.