Garth Knox: Saltarello (ECM New Series 2157)

Saltarello

Garth Knox
Saltarello

Garth Knox fiddle, viola, viola d’amore
Agnès Vesterman violoncello
Sylvain Lemêtre percussion
Recorded December 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Garth Knox describes Saltarello, his second nominal disc for ECM’s New Series following 2008’s D’Amore, as “a mobile structure of musical ‘snapshots’ taken from nearly one thousand years of music.” As the former violist of the Arditti Quartet, Knox gained in-depth knowledge of music by living composers, all the while strengthening his relationship to the viola d’amore and folk-grounded fiddling, and compresses that knowledge into a roaming program. Knox has also developed his voice as a composer, as demonstrated by his Fuga libre for viola solo, which juxtaposes fiery arpeggios with moonlit pizzicato diffusions, glissandi, and harmonic overlays. This cellular approach is writ large across the album’s full breadth, which for the most part traverses centuries-old lineages. Joining Knox on his time travels are cellist Agnès Vesterman and percussionist Sylvian Lemêtre.

On the deepest end of the spectrum we encounter works of medieval masters Hildegard von Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut. The former’s lilting poetry, liturgical and solemn to its ashen core, comes out all the more authentically in the intimate setting, while the latter’s Tels rit au ma[t]in qui au soir pleure adds percussion in Sephardic spirit. Three dances from the 14th century speak further to an ancient aesthetic uncluttered by the discontents of modernity, resonating instead through the viola d’amore’s singing body. Here, too, the percussion balances luminescence opposite Knox’s originary tone. A handful of traditionals takes us into less definable territory, where Appalachian folk song and Irish fiddling meet in Black Brittany in limber arrangement with cello, and a trio of Irish tunes under the title of Pipe, harp and fiddle turns temerity into joy through a prism of bells and drums.

A dip into the font of the Baroque gives up the ghosts of Henry Purcell and Antonio Vivaldi. Where one feels steeped in downright cinematic tragedy, the other crucibles a concerto originally written for viola d’amore and orchestra down to its lead and bass lines, so that the striking geometries of each movement, from dancing to slumbering to dancing again, mold a beautiful sculpture of exuberance.

Bolstering all of this is contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Vent nocturne for viola and electronics, which was written especially for Knox. The first of its two movements bears the title “Sombres miroirs” (Dark Mirrors), the second “Soupirs de l’obscur” (Breaths of the Obscure). The piece includes the composer’s own breathing, as well as the amplified sound of the bow drawn across a string, in a mood that best recalls Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4. It’s a windblown reverie, opened and not merely enhanced by the technological overlay. It is sometimes restless and draws from a relatively stark palette, even as glass harmonica-like drones bleed into frame as if they were time itself. Splitting the two movements even as it binds them is John Dowland’s Flow My Tears, a song last heard under ECM auspices with words on In Darkness Let Me Dwell. It is, like the album as a unit, a prayer that looks itself in the mirror and neither smiles nor frowns, but takes in the entire face, scars and all, as something greater than the sum of its features.

Garth Knox/Agnès Vesterman: D’Amore (ECM New Series 1925)

 

Garth Knox
Agnès Vesterman
D’Amore

Garth Knox viola d’amore
Agnès Vesterman violoncello
Recorded September 2006 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The name of Garth Knox’s solo ECM debut comes, of course, from the viola d’amore, a neglected instrument of which he is our greatest living proponent. Below its seven bowed strings lies a sympathetic loom, which absorbs what Knox calls “a kind of harmonically encoded souvenir.”

This luminescent album brings us straight into its unique body of twined metal, gut, and wood. And what better place to start than with Knox’s own 2004 composition, Malor me bat, of which the soulful playing and seamless execution are only part of the story. With a wide palette of sound colors at his disposal, Knox gives us a sometimes-unexpected journey, seeming to coax with harmonic arpeggios Agnès Vesterman’s cello from the depths of some enigmatic future. It is one of three modern works to appear on the program, the others being Roland Moser’s glyphic scratches in Manners of Speaking (2006) and Klaus Huber’s wonderful …Plainte… (1990), which ends the album with a meditation on (and in) negative space.

Along the way, we encounter a smattering from the early Baroque, including the somber, lilting A Pavin (1605) from Tobias Hume, Attilo Ariosti’s Prima Lezione (1720), which carves its rustic dances with a wide blade, and the immortal Les Folies d’Espagne (1685) of Marin Marais. Add to these a hefty sampling of traditional Celtic tunes, and the result is a vivacious cross-section of what the viola d’amore is capable.

On the whole, this is an adventurous disc and is sure to have something for everyone. Knox’s eclectic approach works wonders, prizing the instrument as the locus of musical activity before the bow even touches the strings. Such an approach allows us deeper insight into Knox’s own passions, that we might better attune ourselves to a wider musical world in the listening. That being said, the three modern pieces are what truly showcase the instrument’s breadth.

The favored acoustics of Propstei St. Gerold once again prove amenable to the music-making archived here, and lift every voice to sing with thrumming quality.