Friday, March 3, 2017

Two (and three) Violins Jamming in the Seventeenth Century

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) featured the Historical Performance Department; and both of the department’s Co-Directors, Elisabeth Reed (cello) and Corey Jamason (harpsichord), were present to provide continuo. The program featured music for two and three violins from the seventeenth century. The first half consisted entirely of Italian composers, while the second half ventured north of the Alps to the lands of German-speaking composers. Most of the compositions involved duo work by faculty member Elizabeth Blumenstock and guest artist (and alumna) Tekla Cunningham. (Cunningham was at SFCM about a month ago to give a master class under the joint auspices of the Historical Performance Department and American Bach Soloists.) The third violinist was Sarah Bleile, who will be graduating at the end of this term.

Blumenstock introduced each half of the program with a few remarks of background material. Where the Italians were concerned, she observed that each selection was a single-movement composition, structured as a sequence of episodes with little relation to each other. In the second half she observed that Johann Heinrich Schmelzer took a similar approach with his three-violin sonata in D major. However, the major works, by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, respectively, were both five-movement suites (although they were called sonatas). This observation led to a playful dig about northern composers having a longer attention span.

Whatever the structural differences may have been, however, the prevailing rhetoric was one of give-and-take exchanges between the soloists. One violin would state a phrase; and the second would reply, usually by repeating with alterations. There was a spontaneity in both the duo and trio work suggesting that much of this music had its origins in improvisation. If a “jam session” turned out to be particularly memorable, then a composer with good memory would take the responsibility of committing it to marks on paper. Every now and then Reed’s cello would “join the conversation,” following the same rules of “rewording” what one of the violinists had just “uttered.”

“Rewording with elaboration” was most evident in a chaconne by Tarquinio Merula, one of 24 pieces he had collected in his Opus 12, a 1637 publication entitled Canzoni overo Sonate concertate per chiesa a camera (songs or concerted sonatas for church and chamber). Since the structure involved a relatively short repeated bass line, this provided opportunities for elaborations to emerge through both the exchange of solos and the joining together of both violin lines in thoroughly engaging homophony. However, since the homophony tended to be parallel thirds, even this music could well have had its origins in improvisation.

At the beginning of the Germanic half, Blumenstock explained that the Biber sonata required alternative tuning for the highest string. This facilitated playing harmonies on multiple strings whose fingering would otherwise be awkward at best. However, she also discussed the impact on the reverberations of the instrument as a whole. Biber clearly had a keen ear for how the sonorous qualities of the instrument could reflect different emotional dispositions (or, as he may have called them, “affects”). Indeed, each of his fifteen “rosary” sonatas requires its own unique tuning, with “standard” tuning required only for the concluding passacaglia.

Blumenstock also explained that the duo sonata performed last night was an example of stylus fantasticus. This entailed a relatively free-form approach to structure that would precede works later classified as fantasias. Because the key was G minor, the prevailing rhetoric (enhanced by the tuning) was dark; but the overall structure still took familiar dance forms as a point of departure. That dark rhetoric continued into a harpsichord solo that Jamason played while  Blumenstock and Cunningham restored their instruments to conventional tuning. The solo was a lament composed by Johann Jacob Froberger on the childhood death of the son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand IV.

Dispositions then turned more positive for the Erlebach and Schmelzer selections. Schmelzer’s spirited sonata for three violins almost seemed to bring down the house at the conclusion of this highly stimulating recital. Indeed, the audience would not let the performers leave without an encore. This was a four-part sarabande by Bartholomeo Magni, which required Reed to alternate between continuo and solo work. With due deference to audience enthusiasm, it is probably worth noting that all of last night’s selections were “private” music intended for more intimate settings. Nevertheless, there is much to appreciate in how audiences are now well-enough informed that the private can fare just as well in public.

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