June 07, 2018


Biber: Mystery Sonatas. Christina Day Martinson, violin; Martin Pearlman, harpsichord and organ; Michael Unterman, cello; Michael Leopold, theorbo and guitar. Linn Records. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Thomas Bowes, violin. Navona. $14.99 (3 CDs).

Prokofiev: Sonata for Solo Violin; Timo Andres: Violin Sonata; Libby Larsen: Blue Piece; Judith Lang Zaimont: Grand Tarantella; Rain Worthington: Jilted Tango; Michael Daugherty: Viva; Benjamin Ellin: Three States at Play. Moonkyung Lee, violin; Martha Locker, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     One of the absolute marvels of Baroque music by one of the most innovative composers of the time, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Mystery Sonatas are musically enthralling, emotionally captivating and spiritually uplifting in a way more usually associated with Bach – who was not born until a decade after Biber wrote this music. Biber was a highly accomplished violinist, to such an extent that he stretched the bounds of violin performance capability in directions previously unheard-of. The word “stretched” can be taken literally: the Mystery Sonatas use scordatura tuning, tuning different from the standard one for the violin, and in some cases this requires stretching the strings (which were, of course, made of gut – which is quite stretchable). It also requires violinists to stretch their technique, since their fingerings in scordatura tuning do not produce the same notes as in traditional tuning. Just how differently Biber made the violin sound for these 15 sonatas is made clear by Christina Day Martinson in her splendid new performance on Linn Records: she opens each sonata by playing the specific four notes to which the violin is tuned for that particular work. The complexity of the tunings and the difficulties associated with them lead Martinson, a superb period-instrument player, to use multiple violins for this performance – a clever and instrument-and-string-sparing approach. There are scarcely enough superlatives to say how well Martinson’s handling of this magnificent music works. There are 15 sonatas because there are 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, and Biber clearly intended the sonatas to accompany Rosary devotions – probably as, in most cases, a generic aid to contemplation, since the sonatas have few direct connections to the scenes of Christ’s and Mary’s lives to which they are attached (each sonata is, in the sole surviving manuscript, preceded by an illustration of the relevant scene, all of which are reproduced in the booklet accompanying this performance). It is not necessary to be Catholic, or even particularly religious, to be uplifted by hearing this marvelous sonata cycle, more than two hours long, from start to finish. And it is almost impossible not to be enthralled by the different sounds that Biber uses scordatura tuning to have the violin produce and that Martinson brings out so beautifully: the brighter sounds of the first five sonatas (collectively, “The Joyful Mysteries”) contrast so strongly with the opening of the sixth, “The Agony in the Garden” (which starts the second set of five, “The Sorrowful Mysteries”) that it is almost impossible not to sit up and take astonished notice. And the final set of five sonatas, “The Glorious Mysteries,” is so bright and clear that it tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s assumption and coronation more effectively than any words can on their own. Martinson is at the forefront of a highly welcome trend in Baroque performance practice, which involves not only the scholarly rediscovery of correct instrumental use and technique but also – and equally important – the re-learning of the very intense emotions sought and elicited by Baroque composers in their compositions. Decades of dry performances of music of this era will not prepare listeners for the extraordinary intensity of feeling in the Mystery Sonatas and Martinson’s highly sensitive evocation of it. After the 15 sonatas, an extended concluding Passacaglia, which uses traditional violin tuning – also employed only in the very first sonata, “The Annunciation” – becomes a capstone that gives listeners a chance to breathe a monumental sigh of relief and to contemplate the amazing beauty and variety to which Biber and Martinson have exposed them. The members of Boston Baroque who accompany Martinson are one and all first-rate, thoughtful musicians whose involvement in Biber’s material is not only audible but also almost palpable. Indeed, this is music that one does not only hear: one feels it, and the feeling with which Martinson plays it underlines the devotional fervor that Biber surely intended to explore in his own time and that is here transferred beautifully and meaningfully to our own, far more secular age.

     There is also a great deal to admire in Thomas Bowes’ cycle for Navona of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, especially on the emotional scale: Bowes sees these works as essentially inward-looking and contemplative, and accordingly performs them with manifest sincerity and a greater sense of profundity than is usually accorded them in most of their movements (the astonishing Chaconne that ends the second Partita always excepted). The structure of this release is interesting: priced as a single CD, it includes three – most recordings put the material on two – and as a result, Bowes offers one sonata and its associated prelude per disc. This encourages thoughtful listening to the ways in which the pieces are (and are not) musically and emotionally comparable, and in particular lends some pleasantly upbeat conclusiveness to the third partita, which can in some readings come across as a rather lightweight end to the set of pieces. Here the third partita becomes an affirmative kind of “musical offering” after the third sonata, with its complex and highly extended second-movement fugue. Bowes also does a fine job throughout the works of emphasizing the way the more-rigid structure of the sonatas contrasts with and is complemented by the more-free-flowing approach of the partitas. What Bowes does not do is to offer a fully historically informed reading of the music. There is less ornamentation and more vibrato in these readings than historic practices would indicate, and there is compromise between the historic and the modern in Bowes’ choice of instrument: the violin dates to 1659 but has modern fittings, and only three of the four strings are gut. When Bowes’ communicative instincts take him in a direction different from what historically accurate performance would indicate, he goes with his feelings rather than the scholarship, as a result producing highly emotive readings that are not quite in line with the type of emotional connection that Bach would have sought. It is certainly possible to stick strictly to Baroque style and bring out the deepest possible emotions – Martinson’s handling of Biber shows that in the most exemplary way possible – but few performers are able to do this, and the hybrid approach used by Bowes is generally more congenial for those playing the music. It works well for listeners, too: Bowes’ interpretations here are heartfelt and come across feelingly, with warmth and in a suitably atmospheric manner. The beauty and profundity of these solo-violin works come through in many different ways in the many different versions of them available to listeners. Bowes’ treatment of the material, if not 100% authentic, is 100% sincere. And it is beautifully paced and played, providing a highly involving listening experience to which one can return repeatedly for added insights.

     The solo-violin pieces on a Navona CD featuring performances by Moonkyung Lee are scarcely at the level of the music of Biber and Bach, and Lee’s playing, while quite fine, does not have the deep-seated conviction and intensity of the performances by Martinson and Bowes – at least in the repertoire heard here. Three of the seven works on this (+++) disc are for solo violin: those by Prokofiev, Daugherty and Ellin. The Prokofiev and Ellin, which open and close the release, make for the most interesting material here and the best-contrasted: each is in three movements, the second being the most relaxed, and each is a fairly short (10-to-12-minute) work giving the violinist plenty of opportunities for display. Unsurprisingly, the tonal language of Ellin’s piece is more contemporary than that of Prokofiev, and Ellin’s work actually sounds more challenging to perform (Prokofiev’s was written as a study piece, albeit for highly talented violin students). Lee clearly relishes the showy aspects of both works and accepts the respite of the works’ middle movements as a necessary interlude: she seeks no particular depth, and in truth, neither composer offers much. The third violin-alone piece, Daugherty’s Viva, is a short showpiece that is all about display and that Lee tosses off with appropriate abandon. The remaining works here also keep the violin as the primary focus even though it is paired with the piano – which Martha Locker balances appropriately with Lee in all cases. The sonata by Andres somewhat recalls Prokofiev both in sound and in its comparative simplicity; there is also something rather Schubertian about it. Larsen’s Blue Piece is laid-back and pleasant, if rather forgettable. Zaimont’s Grand Tarantella comes across well, with the jauntiness to which the title points: here as elsewhere, Lee seems especially comfortable with and adept at dealing with bright, upbeat material. And Worthington’s Jilted Tango, another dance-inspired work, is a neatly superficial bit of musical lovemaking. Because of the Prokofiev, Ellis and Andres works, this CD does not come across as solely a collection of encore-like display pieces. But the comparative lightness of the three sonata serves to emphasize Lee’s apparent comfort with the lighter side of violin music and performance: because the material here lacks profundity (although certainly not all music must possess it), the disc as a whole provides little substantive to which a listener is likely to return repeatedly for psychological or emotional nourishment.

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