By Stephanie Powell
Rachel Barton Pine took a leap of faith. After some-odd years of fiddling around on a modernized viola d’amore—a 14-string instrument related to the violin and hailing from the Baroque era—she decided to bid on a 1774 Gagliano viola d’amore at a Tarisio auction.
“I wasn’t able to hear what it sounded like because it had been hanging on the walls of the shop since 1970-something,” Pine says over the phone from Chicago, adding that she purchased a 1770 Nicola Gagliano Baroque violin in 2000 and is a fan of the luthier’s work. “It had the same gut strings that had been put on it in the ’70s!”
And just like that, it became her first win at an auction and first Baroque-era viola d’amore in one fell swoop.
“I brought both my violin and the viola d’amore to [Carl] Becker’s shop—Paul [Becker] took one look at them and said, ‘Oh my God, the tops of both instruments are made from the same tree,’” she says. “It was like fate—this unbelievable sibling reunion.”
While she often plays the viola d’amore on her concert circuit—performing one of the movements from a Vivaldi concerto as an encore on the 18th-century instrument or spicing up Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with a d’amore cameo—it was time to make a recording. Partnering with period-instrument ensemble Ars Antigua, whom Pine notes are close friends, she has released her first recording of Vivaldi—and first recording on the viola d’amore—Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos (Cedille).
“The viola d’amore is a living, thriving instrument,” she says, “and it’s not a type of viola.” The d’amore has two sets of strings—a set of sympathetic strings run underneath the strings that you bow on, allowing the instrument to ring. Pine then offers some spontaneous improv, singing the D-tuning on a viola d’amore to illustrate its depth and range. It was considered a supplemental instrument, she adds, one that a composer would turn to when looking for a specific type of color or voice in the violin family.
“The curve is gentler than that of a violin,” Pine says of the d’amore’s structure. “The way you draw the sound, because of that narrowness, and because of the resonating quality of the instrument—you actually draw it much more lightly so that it rings as opposed to pressing down into the sound. It’s a different use of the bow arm.”
It’s that refreshing ringing sound that had composers writing scores for the historical instrument—from J.S. Bach to Joseph Haydn. Pine, in particular, was eager to explore Vivaldi’s concertos.
“There’s a saying that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times,” Pine says, “and when you start to analyze music you can see of course there are certain theoretical structures that [composers] follow.
“The viola d’amore concertos each have their own personality, and one of the things you have to do is think about the timing. If you play it metronomically it does all start to sound the same, but because it’s the timing that brings the rhetoric to life—and rhetoric is what makes these concertos unique—[you can] approach it in a very vocal way, thinking about operatic types of timing and really exaggerating every mood change, every rubato, and not being afraid to really go far with that. It’s awesome to show how far Vivaldi can go.”
It’s extreme violin playing, Pine says, “an expansion of the violin.” But it took time for Pine to find her voice on the viola d’amore. “When I play the violin I sound like me. With the viola d’amore, its voice was so different,” she says. “It was a question of how can I physically make this instrument sound good in general, and, now, how can I make it my own and find my own voice within the world of the viola d’amore.”
It is a process that is still underway, she says. “String three, finger two—there are certain notes you can find on four different strings in the first position,” she adds. “It’s a real mind twister. When I first started, my bow would be on string five and my fingers would be on string six and it was so discombobulating. Any piece you’re going to learn [on this instrument] is an incredible intellectual puzzle.”