A saltarello is a medieval dance named for its leaping steps (“little hop” in Italian). One might wonder why this meditative, atmospheric album takes a lively dance form as its title when there is only one specimen on the program. In fact it’s the three players who do the jumping – across nine centuries of music, and between Garth Knox’s rustic medieval fiddle, seven-string viola d’amore and modern viola.
He switches weapons seamlessly from one track to the next and demonstrates poetic phrasing and technical mastery with all three. Hildegard von Bingen’s Ave, generosa is the earliest music heard here, echoing through time in a vibrato-less, double-stopped fiddle version capturing both soaring chant and drone.
A yearning vocal quality resonates throughout this inspired instrumental program, from lilting variations on the folksong Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair to Dowland’s Flow My Tears and Purcell’s Music for a While, unerringly matched in mood by Agnès Vesterman’s nuanced cello basslines.
Hearing such timeless songs in Knox’s arrangements is to hear them as if they were always intended for these instruments. Curiously, the only work originally scored for viola d’amore, Vivaldi’s concerto RV393, is the least convincing for its lack of clarity and poise.
Modern fare takes us away from sombre Baroque without breaking the spell cast by ECM’s warm recorded sound: the brooding intensity of Knox’s own Fuga libre with its knotted contrapuntal strands and raw attack, and the dark, sinuous Vent nocturne by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, written for this soloist. Ticks all the boxes I never hoped to find ticked in the one place.