Garth Knox is a violist with a broad sense of music history. Born in Ireland and raised in Scotland, he received his education at the Royal College of Music in London. In 1983 he began performing with Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris and subsequently became the third violist to perform in the Arditti Quartet, a position he held between 1990 and 1997. However, his interest as a performer extends beyond the viola to its earlier cousin, the viola d’amore and its “folk relative,” the fiddle.
All three of these instruments are featured on his latest ECM release, whose title, Saltarello, refers to one of the earliest and most energetic dance forms. In fact two of these dances from the fourteenth century are included on this CD on a track in which they are separated by another dance form, the ghaetta. All three of these pieces are anonymous, and Knox performs them on fiddle with percussion accompaniment by Sylvain Lemêtre.
Taken as a whole, however, the CD covers material from the twelfth-century nun Hildegard von Bingen to the two-part suite, Vent nocturne, for viola and electronics, composed for Knox by Kaija Saariaho, as well as one of Knox’ own compositions, “Fuga libre” for solo viola. His viola d’amore performances involve “continuo” accompaniment by cellist Agnès Vesterman. The two of them perform arrangements by Knox that are as unique as they are historically informed. Thus, their account of a D minor viola d’amore concerto by Antonio Vivaldi never leaves one feeling any problems with the absence of a string ensemble or even a keyboard continuo. Similarly, the two of them take a theme-and-elaborations approach in Knox’ arrangement of John Dowland’s “Flow my Tears.”
On the recording the Dowland is interposed between the two movements of Saariaho’s suite. “Vent” should be taken as the French for “wind;“ and Saariaho uses electronics to summon an other-worldly quality of wind that sounds distinctively like some supernatural form of breath. The result is that Saariaho’s score sets a particularly effective context for the tragic words (not sung on this recording) of Dowland’s seventeenth-century lute song, while the Dowland sets a context for Saariaho’s solo viola part, whose diversity of sonorities offers up connotations of poignant search.
The result is that, overall, the recording is less one of a journey through music history and more a “performer’s perspective” that the corpus accumulated over the last thousand years is all of a piece; and that perspective makes for a thoroughly engaging experience for the serious listener.