Recording Orfeo: a string player’s perspective

by Oliver Webber

Oliver Webber

When Andrew invited me to take part in his recording of Orfeo, I was thrilled: this is a work I have wanted to explore properly for many years, and I was delighted to have the opportunity. I was even more pleased to be able to collaborate with Andrew on decisions regarding the string band: this is an issue which one might expect to be straightforward, given how many decades the historical performance movement has been with us, but in fact in the case of Orfeo there were a surprising number of critical decisions which had to be made even before players were booked – not least the actual instruments that were to be used!

The two most interesting questions related to the identity of the ‘tenor’ member of the band, and the nature of Monteverdi’s famous ‘violini piccoli alla francese’ – the latter a particularly vexed question which has exercised many musicological minds since the work began to develop a renewed performance tradition in the 20th century. The two candidates for the tenor role were the large, but normally tuned, viola, and the small bass in F (a fifth below the viola) referred to in a number of 16th– and 17th-century sources. The process of reviewing and analysing the available evidence was fascinating in itself: treatises, iconography, inventories, and surviving instruments were examined and discussed, cases made and opposed – but in the end, we could find no clear evidence to rule out either candidate! Andrew’s preference for the larger, F-tuned instrument proved to be thoroughly satisfying and gave a richness to the band that is sometimes lacking.

The violini piccoli were more of a challenge: opinions on their identity have been quite polarised, some suggesting that they referred to smaller violins of the type made by the Amatis, some of which survive today – but which have no specific French connotations – others that they referred to ‘pochettes’, the dancing masters’ fiddles made in a number of different shapes and sizes, none of which seemed to prioritise quality of sound! However, we eventually tracked down two pochettes made on a model illustrated in Praetorius’ Syntagma Musicum, a decade or so after Orfeo’s first performance: these were, unlike many pochettes, rebec-shaped, with a more bulbous body and greater resonance than the narrow boat-shaped type more commonly seen. The result was a rather sweet sound, quiet, but just loud enough, which seemed to fit perfectly with the pastoral setting in which they are used, offering a bird-like quality which nicely complemented the shepherd’s woodland praises. After many months of research and discussion, the irony was not lost on us that these charming instruments play for about 45 seconds!

To complete the picture, we needed to source a large viola and large bass violin, as well as a contrabasso di gamba and two relatively normal violins, which we had already, and of course a great many gut strings – some enormously thick. The process was enormously satisfying, and seeing all the instruments together was a great thrill for me personally.

Instruments chosen, it was tremendously exciting to reach the first rehearsal and start putting everything into place. At a meeting in advance with Andrew, I had the opportunity to discuss musical issues from tempo to ornamentation, so that when we came to rehearse, to save time, the string band worked in a separate room while singers and continuo rehearsed in the main body of the church. When we finally joined forces, it was thrilling to hear such expert singing; this work is so different from later opera (if indeed ‘opera’ applies to it at all), and it was incredibly refreshing to approach it as Andrew and his singers did in a much more intimate style, where the audience is drawn in to careful listening rather than assaulted by a blast of sound (brilliant though that may be in the right circumstances!).

The performance in Herrenchiemsee was in the most extraordinary space: an enormous mirrored room so big we could hardly see the end of it! Not at all like the small chamber originally intended – but we didn’t allow that to interfere with the subtle, intimate approach, and I think and hope the audience (even those hundreds of yards away) were successfully moved.

The recording sessions were enormously satisfying; having performed the work, we had a better concept of the totality of it, and it was a pleasure to have the chance to work on each section, thoroughly understanding its context, from the dancing exuberance of the early choruses, to the bitter shock as Orfeo gives in (as we know he must, but pray he won’t) to the temptation of turning to see his beloved; for me one of the most touching moments is when the poor Messaggiera, who has to deliver the fateful news of Euridice’s death, announces that she can bear it no longer, and takes herself off to a cave to live a solitary like ‘befitting her sorrow’; the string ritornello which follows is an example of Monteverdi’s most moving ensemble writing.

The whole experience was a challenge, a privilege and a pleasure; my only regret was that we had just the one opportunity to perform it. I do hope that might change in the future!