Yesterday afternoon the Third Sunday Concerts series at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King presented an adventurous and engaging recital by the Agave Baroque chamber ensemble. This is a quintet of two violinists, Aaron Westman and Anna Washburn, playing with a continuo of William Skeen on gamba, Henry Lebedinsky on organ, and Kevin Cooper playing both theorbo and Baroque guitar. The title of the program took up most of the cover of the program handout: The Fantastical Mr. Biber: The experimental harmonies, virtuosity, and modernism of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.
Biber was born in Bohemia but spent most of his life in Salzburg in Austria. Introductory remarks observed that Baroque music in Austria was distinctively different from that in Germany. The argument was that Austria enjoyed a broader range of influences, not only from Germany to the north but also Italy to the south, Hungary to the east, and possibly even Spain to the west, which was under Hapsburg rule. Thus, the program also included organ music by Georg Reutter, based in Vienna, as well as the “external” influences of Jakob Kremberg (Polish) and Johannes Schenck (Dutch).
However, the focus of the program was on Biber and his “fantastical” capacity for invention, which he brought to the music he composed for the violin. Biber was interested not only in exploring the embellishment of his thematic material but also in complementing those explorations with new approaches to sonorities and harmonies. Thus, most of the selections of his music involved the scordatura technique of tuning the strings to different pitches. As had been observed in the preview article for this concert, each of the depictions of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary in the Rosary Sonatas requires its own unique alternative tuning. (Each sonata also was published with a woodcut illustrating its respective Mystery. This could be seen in the photograph including a score page in that preview article.) Yesterday afternoon Washburn played the second of these sonatas, known as “The Visitation,” depicting the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when they were pregnant with Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively.
The major part of the program, however, was devoted to Biber’s Harmonia artificioso-arioso, which involves scordatura tunings for multiple instruments. The intermission was preceded by two short movements from the third of the seven partitas in this collection, while the second half of the program was devoted primarily to the first of these partitas. Biber experimented with five-part harmonies involving the continuo bass line under double-stop bowing in two violins; and the effect is frequently uncanny. Fortunately, Westman and Washburn were well prepared for the technical demands of the first partita, serving up a thoroughly engaging account of just how inventive Biber could be in his approached to violin performance.
That inventiveness was also well represented by each of the other players. Lebedinsky moved up to the organ loft to play a toccata by Reutter, while Skeen deftly negotiated the virtuoso demands on the gamba in a coupling of a capriccio and fugue by Schenck. Cooper shifted from theorbo to guitar to play arrangements of folk songs by Kremberg, sharing the vocal line with the other musicians as each song traversed several verses.
The result was an encounter with seldom-performed music from a time when Austria had not yet become a musical focal point, all given an absorbing account that made for an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon.