Gamba concerto – Antonio Vivaldi, ‘Concerto funebre’ RV 579

June 3, 2009

Okay, so this is not a baroque concerto for solo bass viol. Unusually, and perhaps, uniquely, it’s a concerto featuring viol consort. How many concertos have ever featured two trebles and a bass as solo instruments? But is the viol consort being used as some sort of defacto, curious concertante orchestra backing to a principal violin? And where is the tenor in this consort – with tentative links to the use of trebles and basses sans tenor by the Germans?

Concerto for muted oboe, chalumeaux, principal violin and viols (two trebles and bass) and basso continuo, in B-flat – Largo/Allegro poco poco and Allegro.

In the Savall recording (run time is 7’44), he plays first treble with Imke David on treble II (with no indication who’s playing the bass viol part) with Bruno Cocset on ‘cello presumably the string basso continuo plus theorbo, with Michael Behringer swapping the organ for harpsichord.

Michael Talbot in the liner notes for Savall Alia Vox recording dates this from around the mid-1720s,which is while the French court is still mourning the death of Louis XIV. I mention that only for those viol players who like me see everything in terms of what was happening in France at the time. Talbot indicates the concerto was played as part of a church service, perhaps honouring a benefactor.

We’re talking principal violin, one or more oboes, one or more tenor chalumeaux, three viols (trtrB), muted strings and continuo. Talbot is perfectly correct in indicating an overall sombre effect with a lot of musical interest and variegated sound within. The introductory slow movement apparently is a re-write of a sinfonia from a 1719 Mantua opera, Act III, Tito Manlio, presumably Vivaldi’s and not one of his pastiches. And the final fugue comes from a concerto a quattro, RV 123.

The Alia Vox liner notes feature the first seven bars from the manuscript score.  EuroSheet Music has the score (15euros) and parts (26euros) available.

The sombre tone is established by the opening repeated four-quavers-minum motifs, giving us a sense of pause. We’re not talking doleful here because it is still in B-flat major. The pearl of this stately Largo is the extraordinary aural treat via a trill from the woodwinds, about 3/4 the way through. We get there via the very dry viols – no violinistic exuberance, at least until the cadential violin which leads us nicely into a slightly more pacey (but still relatively stately) Allegro. The opening statement still features woodwind trills, but this time with delicate waterfall like descending scales from the upper strings. The development features more solo passages from each of the instruments in turn, so it’s still not sounding like a violin concerto by another name. A nice fullsome coda to finish. The final movement is ‘truer’ Vivaldi as we know him best, with a certain triumphalism creeping in (including a return, once again, to strong woodwind trills). Talbot remarks that in the final two movements, the viols have no independent passages.

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