By Cristina Schreil
German viola da gamba player Hille Perl grew up in a family of musicians. When she was five, while at a concert (a regular outing for the family) in the Bremen Rathaus, she heard Belgian Baroque cello and viola da gamba player Wieland Kuijken perform on the viola da gamba with his brothers and Gustav Leonhardt. “I was immediately fascinated by the sounds that came out of the instrument, as if someone was talking and singing at the same time,” she recalls. “It was clear to me that I would be playing that instrument.”
Perl caught up with Strings while recording the Bach Flute Sonatas with Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani in Copenhagen. She speaks about her main instrument, a historical viola da gamba by Matthias Alban from the year 1686. “I play it most of the time and am very happy with it,” she says.
What do you know about this instrument’s history?
The man who gave it to me found it in a cloister in Tyrol in the year 1952—apparently it had been lying in the attic for a few hundred years. I am so lucky it found its way to me and I hope it will play on, long after I am gone.
I know that in the year 1953, Ingo Muthesius brought it back into playing condition: He had to make a new neck for it but kept the original pegs and the lion’s head. The rest of the instrument is pretty much in original condition, except of course for the string holder, the fingerboard, and bridge.
How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it and how did you know it was the right fit?
The Matthias Alban just fell into my lap so to speak. The man who owned it thought I should play it. So, I got it and immediately felt that he was right. That viol and I belong together at this point in time.
Who keeps it in playing condition?
When I met [luthier] Claus Derenbach in the early ’80s he was still an apprentice, but immediately impressed me with his incredible intuition for wood, weight, sound, proportion, and balance. He has ever since fixed, built, repaired, or restored all the instruments I’ve ever played, except my electric viol. He makes fabulous bridges, knows so much about the set-up of viols. I think he very carefully watches how you play, and then he finds the perfect set-up for your bridge or fingerboard, so that it feels as if you had always played on it, even though it has a new bridge.
What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
The unique quality of adding unexpected colors to whatever I play. It is more like having a conversation already with the instrument while producing sounds, not just a conversation with the music I play or with the audience: This is, I guess, why it is so attractive to play it—it is not entirely in my control. It is an experience as if I were listening to resonances and sound rooms that have existed long before my time.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
The great thing about viols in general is that they can be many things, instruments and personalities at once: old sources claim that the gamba is the instrument closest to the human voice—I believe this also means the speaking voice, not just when one is singing. The sources claim and praise gamba for its ability to lament and weep, as well as imitate the sound of a sleeping child or put the smell of flowers into sound. The resonance inside the body is one of the secrets of its charm.
But it can also imitate a lot of other instruments like flutes or oboes or violins. The immense tonal range of more than four octaves gives the viola da gamba all these possibilities. My own viol has among all its sisters a great warmth in its sound, which comforts me and I am sure somehow helps to make the world a more peaceful place.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
Viols are like people—they react to absolutely everything: atmosphere, weather, humidity, light, feelings. They perform the best in peaceful, concentrated conditions: churches, concert halls, places where a high amount of awareness and peace is in the air.
What is its greatest strength?
The ability to make a transparent yet resonant sound and mix with most other instrumental or vocal colors without dominating them.
What are some of its limitations?
I feel the only limitation of a viol—which might not even be one—is the limited dynamic range: since you always have six or seven strings that put tension on the soundboard of the instrument, you cannot have very thick—loud—strings. The instruments of the violin family have only three or four strings, hence you can put thicker strings on them and make them louder. Which is why in the old days those instruments were used to play outside, for festivities and marches and so on, while lutes and viols, with many strings, were mostly used for art music and played inside.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
Probably my Alban viol would choose red wine and ask for the piece in F-sharp minor I like to play so much.
What are the other instruments you sometimes play?
I also sometimes play a fabulous copy of a French instrument. The original, made by André Chéron in 1701, is in the Museum of Brussels. A fine seven-string viol, the copy was made by Claus Derenbach in Cologne. He is the one who built most of the viols I have played in my life: He also makes very fine copies of an Italian Stradivari model, with six strings, which now a lot of my colleagues and students play, also my daughter has one of them. They are great for earlier 17th-century music—anything from Monteverdi and bastarda-style to Corelli. Derenbach has also made the amazing treble viol I play. I have had it for 30 years and still it is my favorite treble viol.
For my students in the University of the Arts in Bremen, I bought a fabulous Renaissance consort: five viols that fit together perfectly for 15th- and 16th-century music. It is a great experience to play them and a unique, very transparent sound when played in consort. The instruments are copies after the Francesco Linarol instrument in the museum in Vienna. Henner Harders made the whole consort, thinking a lot about the sizes and how to make them work all strung in plain gut from top to bottom.
Then I also in recent years have started to experiment with electric viols. There are several models people play these days, and I have found my favorite: an electric viol called Altra by the French maker François Danger. It is in the shape slightly reminiscent of an electric guitar—it has a resonance body, but a small one, so we don’t get into trouble with too much feedback. I like the fact that I can still shape the sound and the dynamics with my bow and am not just reliant on the amplification and effects to do so.
Strings: “For plain gut, I use anything that comes along, knowing that we are still on our way to finding the right method to produce gut strings as they had them in the 17th century. The closest to what I believe they might have felt or sounded like are three strings I got from Mimmo Peruffo from Aquila. The research is still going on and experiments are still being made. Mostly I play gut from the Brothers Toro. They make nice, somewhat darker strings from ram gut. They feel very good under the fingers and the bow. For overspun strings, I am still searching for the optimal solution: Nicholas Baldock made a very fine attempt at so-called tigerlines, but I’ll play anything I can get a hold of and deal with however it sounds.”
Bows: “I am lucky to have an old bow from probably around 1710 made from some kind of ironwood. Otherwise, I play anything I can get. I don’t have a strong opinion about what a bow should be like. They come so manifold—some work for some things, others for other things. Generally, I prefer bows that are quite heavy for the bass viol, so you only need to move them and not use pressure or tension. Let the bow do the work—that’s my feeling.”
Case: Gewa fiberglass
Rosin: My favorite rosin is the Nyman double-bass rosin in the violet case. In summer, cello rosin will do—double-bass rosin makes too harsh a sound.
Additional Gear: “What amazing inventions tuning machines are for multi-string instrumentalists. I use a Korg tuner with a clip-on microphone, so I can still adjust my tuning when lots of noise is around. Otherwise I use apps for the mobile phone, like Pitch Lab or Cleartunes, which also have many pitches and an amazing number of temperaments in store, from 1/4-comma-meantone to Bach-kellner. You can find almost anything.”