Sometimes the most interesting composers are those we know least about. Erroneously dubbed the last great viola da gamba virtuoso, Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-87) is a case in point.
Abel was linked to the Bach family from before his birth; the son of a close friend of JS Bach, he was co-founder with JC Bach of London’s first subscription concerts series, author of the symphony once thought to be Mozart’s KV18, subject and friend of the portraitist Thomas Gainsborough and a celebrated drunk and guest in Goethe’s childhood home. Consequently, Abel strode through turbulent times, only to be remembered more for his connections than his music.
Abel’s symphonies and concertos are now largely forgotten, though his Trio Sonatas have enjoyed lasting popularity, and it is thanks to Gainsborough that The Drexel Manuscript for unaccompanied viola da gamba survives. Lovingly reconstructed by Paolo Pandolfo, only one fragment remains ‘sleeping’ on the pages.
While the D minor Suite is played as it appears in the manuscript, the two D major Suites have been compiled so as to emphasise Abel’s elegant fusion of the instrument’s Baroque heritage and the burgeoning Classical style.
Gamba nerds may enjoy hearing the movements in the order they were written, but Pandolfo’s more conventional ordering is persuasive. Muscular arpeggiata preludes cede to pizzicato dances of ineffable suavity, and a fugue of dazzling complexity.
The sound is highly intoxicating. Both Pandolfo’s expressivity and technique are beyond praise. Anna Picard