Quartet paints Baroque in innovative light

On Sunday afternoon in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, visiting chamber group Boston Baroque delivered a diverse array of pieces spanning most of the Baroque era. Boston Baroque comprises violinists Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata, cellist Sarah Freiberg and harpsichordist Martin Pearlman. The program, including works by Dario Castello, Henry Purcell, Heinrich Biber and Johann Goldberg was aptly structured, highlighting both the evolution and constancy of Baroque music.

The program began with Dario Castello’s “Sonata No. 10” from Book One of his Sonata Concertate in Stil Moderno. Castello denoted his volume as “stylistically modern” because it departed from the late Medieval polyphonic compositional norm in favor of a single recitative melodic line accompanied by continuo. This was immediately evident from the piece’s opening moments, which began on a rousing violin passage supported by the harpsichord and cello serving as the basso continuo. Violinists Martinson and Ogata played with crisp spontaneity as if to boldly assert the contemporaneous modernity of Castello’s composition. As an even more radical departure from late Medieval norms, the cello also assumed the melodic line, reciting the upper strings’ passage in its own register. Freiberg’s dramatic delivery perfectly complemented the stirring opening, underscored by the richness of the Baroque cello’s singular timbre.

Next was Johann Schmelzer’s ‘Cuckoo’ Sonata. This delightful virtuosic piece musically captured the cuckoo’s onomatopoetic call, opening with a carefree rendition of the bird’s “coo-coo” sound. This was quickly subsumed by a quick, swooping passage spanning the violin’s entire tonal range. The piece interludes on its simple representative opening before delving into a rapid sautillé passage virtually identical to Heinrich Biber’s own “‘Cuckoo’ Sonata” from his Sonata Representativa. Otaga’s rendition was exceptional, sacrificing neither virtuosity nor clarity.

The first half of the program concluded with François Couperin’s narrative piece L’Apothéose de Lully. Written in memory of the preeminent French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, L’Apothéose details the induction of Lully into the circle of Baroque gods on Mount Parnassus. The piece opens somberly, lingering on Lully’s death, but is soon lifted by the sprightly “Flight of Mercury warning Apollo’s descent,” dappled by airy passages from the upper strings and harpsichord. The next narrative, “Descent of Apollo,” which portrays Apollo’s coming to offer his violin to Lully and a place on Parnassus, consists of a round between the entire ensemble symbolizing the exchange. In addition to supplying the deft precision demanded by the round, the players imbued it with an organic quality evoking Lully’s joy at receiving Apollo’s gift.

After a series of grating passages representing other composers’ dismay at Lully’s apotheosis, the piece takes an intriguing turn in the narrative in the passage dubbed “Apollo persuades Lully and the Italian Baroque composers that the styles must create musical perfection together.” As the long-winded title suggests, the passage comprises a combination of French (as personified by Lully) and Italian (as personified by Arcangelo Corelli) Baroque motifs; French motifs are represented by the first violin and Italian motifs by the second violin. Interestingly, the narrative passage was not so much an amalgam as an alternating exchange – divisions between French and Italian passages were quite discrete. Further passages had the first and second violin parts exchange roles, until the piece concluded by a triumphant interweaving of the two musical styles.

The second half of the performance highlighted the diversity of Baroque music, beginning with Henry Purcell’s “Sonata in C minor” from Sonatas of Three Parts. The sonata, which harpsichordist Pearlman described as “avant-garde Baroque,” included oddities like repetition of a single theme without any variation whatsoever, rounds that quickly diverge into completely disparate themes and unexpected intervals and transitions. Although interesting to listen to, I felt that the piece’s inclusion served only to illustrate an oddity of the Baroque period. If nothing else, “Sonata in C minor” effectively dispels the oft-held belief that all Baroque music sounds the same.

Purcell was followed by two works for solo cello – “Bergamasca per la Lettera B” and “Chiacona” – by Giovanni Vitali and Giuseppe Colombi, respectively. The pieces, originally written for Baroque string ensemble both consisted of an unremarkable theme with equally unremarkable variations; as with the Purcell, I felt the solo cello works were included as a historical curiosity. Cellist Freiberg explained that both Vitali and Colombi were among the first composers to write substantial parts for the cello, which had only just supplanted the violoncello in the mid 17th century. Perhaps as a consequence of the then-nascent instrumentation, I found neither piece particularly compelling. Indeed, after hearing her performance in the Castello, I was hoping that Freiberg’s mastery of the Baroque cello would be devoted to something more engaging.

Next on the program was Heinrich Biber’s “Mystery Sonata 10 (‘Crucifixion’).” The piece utilizes a detuned violin – D-A-D-G, as opposed to ordinary E-A-D-G tuning – to create an octave resonance between the first and third strings. Opening on a galloping double-stopped passage, violinist Martinson’s virtuosity was immediately apparent. Fast slurred staccato passages and arpeggios were rendered with utmost clarity. Martinson’s resolution was particularly impressive in light of the resonant octave, whose drone can cast a nebulous shroud over the piece.

The concert concluded with “Trio Sonata in C major,” often attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach but probably written by his student, Johann Goldberg. Consisting of four movements, the final piece brought the entire ensemble together. Although only occasionally worthy of being ascribed to Bach, the trio nonetheless served well to showcase the ensemble’s cohesiveness. The dynamic balance of the group was superb; despite comprising highly distinct lines, the sonata’s canon and triple fugue felt as if they were played by a single entity. This coherence aptly corresponded to the concert as a whole, which integrated disparate works into a tightly coordinated program.