Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Bach to Nature


Recently we had staying with us Jean-Paul Minali-Bella. He's one of France's most celebrated viola players. He came with two instruments, a regular viola to play in a couple of concerts locally, and something quite new to me called an Arpegina.

In the 1720s Bach wrote a set of 6 suites for solo cello, which have become a byword for intimate, private contemplation and meditation. They didn't become well-known until the 1920s, when the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals first popularised them.

There have been problems over playing them ever since, because there's no absolute certainty about what sort of cello Bach wrote them for. One of the difficulties is that in the course of the 18th century the cello underwent structural changes to enable a much bigger sound. The bigger the sound, the further behind the intimacy of the music is left. There isn't much intimacy in the concert hall.

There are technical problems, too. Some of the music doesn't lend itself to being played on a regular 4-stringed cello. This has led some commentators to believe that the suites were written for a 5-stringed instrument, or even that a special bow, now lost, if it ever existed, was needed to play them. It's possible to play the Bach cello suites on the viola.

In 1824 Schubert wrote a sonata for a friend who played an instrument called an Arpeggione, which was a kind of guitar played with a bow. The 'Arpeggione' sonata, with piano accompaniment, is now usually played on the cello, but there are arrangements for viola.

In conjunction with Bernard Sabatier, a Paris instrument maker, Jean-Paul Minali-Bella has developed an instrument which, while capable of playing the entire viola repertoire, can realise the 'Arpeggione' sonata as Schubert originally wrote it. And, of course, the Bach solo cello suites.

Jean-Paul's Arpegina has 5 strings, the lowest tuned to the E below the C of the conventional viola. To accommodate the extra tension of a fifth string, and to provide extra resonance, the body has been widened and thickened into a sort of cauliflower ear. The basic design is two adjacent ellipses. This leads to the instrument looking a bit like a viola with mumps, but it works.

When he played extracts to J. and me the sound was refined, sweet and somehow personalised. Gone were the declamatory, showy and sometimes overblown virtuoso tones we so often hear. We can never know what sound Bach originally intended, but we were very happy with this approximation. Thank you, Jean-Paul.

UPDATE: Here's Jean-Paul playing the last movement of the Schubert 'Arpeggione' sonata, accompanied by European Camerata, the string ensemble he has done much to establish. I'm afraid the recording doesn't do anyone all that much justice.


Dave said...

I have nothing to add.

Rog said...

I always say there's no sense in having France's leading Viola Player and Baching yourself.

Christopher said...

Well I wondered what you two might have to say and I must say it's wonderfully reassuring when one's expectations are fully met. Thank you. I don't suppose you need to use your pun app. very much, do you, Rog?

mig said...

That's really interesting and what a lovely experience.
All the five string violas I've encountered have either had an E string above the A or an F below C. And the only time I tried to play one I found it horribly confusing. I suppose a lower E string makes more sense!

I, Like The View said...

he's one cool cat!!

and what a beautiful instrument - I went out with a fiddle player once, who had some very posh violin on loan from a sponsor. . . the sound was gorgeous

you're so lucky to have music in your lives


Sarah said...

Ditto ILTV, my attention was held right from the beginning of this post.
A vid of J-P playing might have helped the musically dyslexic amongst us !

Hope your bach gets better soon BTW.

Christopher said...

mig: Yes, Jean-Paul's stay was memorable in all sorts of ways. We still miss him days after he's gone.

Jax: Absolutely. And yes, we do count our blessings.

Sah: Omission rectified. Hope you enjoy it. Bach's on the mend, thank you.

Sarah said...

It's massive! has anyone told Jean -Paul he might find to easier to play his thingumyjig like like a guitar ?

Seriously...WOW, he's amazing, I was transfixed for all of 8 mins 38 secs.
Thanks for adding that in.

patroclus said...

Very much admiring the composition of the top photo, with the Arpeggione echoing the Femme Couchée and the bow echoing the bell tower, the cypress and the, er, telegraph pole.

patroclus said...

Er, Arpegina, rather.

Sarah said...

I love this....just had to watch it again!

Dave said...

Have I mentioned I'm tone deaf?

Vicus Scurra said...

Dave. 7 and 12. I hope that this helps.
Thank you Christopher. A pleasant beginning to the day. I will see what I can do to spoil it.

dinahmow said...

Ah, this is the trouble with Youtube...splintered sounds.
But I heard enough fluid (there is no other word) notes to go looking for a proper recording of this group.
And he's not too hard to look at, either! ;-)

dinahmow said...

I forgot to say thankyou!

Dave said...

Vicus: 19. Next.

Christopher said...


I wouldn't like to be accused of playing gooseberry between Dave and Vicus, but may I interject 26?

(I leave explaining what 'playing gooseberry' means to my US guests to those that have more experience of it than I.)