Early Music Review

Magnolia Baroque Festival: "From Biber to Bach"

June 20, 2006 - Winston-Salem, NC:

The Magnolia Baroque Festival, an intensive week of concerts, made a welcome return June 20 in Watson Hall at the NC School of the Arts. Founded last year, the festival features intriguing programs of Baroque music and superb musicians (many with NCSA connections) playing period instruments or copies of old instruments. It also draws on the unique resources of the Moravian Archives in Old Salem. A variety of venues within Winston-Salem are used. Tenor Glenn Siebert, an artist-faculty member of the NCSA, is the Founder/Director.

Violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, co-founders of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, presented two works by J. S. Bach in the context of three of his great 17th-century North German colleagues. The succinct and useful program notes were written by Michael Dodds, Head of Music History at the NCSA.

One of the highlights of the 2005 season was Matthews' performance of Biber's First "Rosary" Sonata. The 18th-century historian Charles Burney said that the scores of the violinist-composer "are the most difficult and most fanciful... of the period." His fifteen "Rosary" sonatas make extensive use of scodatura, the deliberate retuning of the violin strings to permit spectacular color and harmonic effects. The Sonata VI in C minor, for violin and basso continuo, comes from Biber's later Sonatae violino solo (Nuremberg, 1681). It uses less of that tuning method but makes the maximum of contrast among its five movements. A strict fugue and a passacaglia, utilizing variations, are set against two movements designated "free" and capped by a fast and intense allegro. Matthews exhibited exceptionally clear articulation, very clean bowing, and precise intonation. Her fine violin has a remarkably dark, rich timbre. Schenkman was an imaginative accompanist, ably supporting the violin or, when appropriate, taking up the solo line. His harpsichord has a warm and resonant sound, and he was able subtly to shade its dynamics to a surprising degree.

Two harpsichord solos gave Schenkman ample scope to display the range and subtlety of his musicianship. Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-67), considered the greatest German keyboard composer of the mid-17th century, absorbed and made his own the styles of the many European countries that he visited. Memorial pieces, frequently called tombeau, have always been a fertile part of the French school of composition. Froberger adds "German contrapuntal rigor" to his palette of color and imaginative use of dance-derived rhythms. His "Tombeau fait à Paris sur la mort de Monsieur Blancheroche" (1652) memorializes one of the city's principal lutenists. A recurring deep and resonant note, played with a lute stop, evoked the dark sound of a theorbo. Schenkman sustained an apt slow tempo while following the composer's directions and playing with rhythmic freedom.

It is too bad that most music lovers know Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) only from the notorious Canon in D in inflated arrangements. His music is much more diverse than that. Schenkman demonstrated a facet of this repertory with the Ciaccona in D for solo harpsichord. Dodds' fine program notes trace the ciaccona from its origins as "a vivacious, bawdy dance-song in New Spain in the late 16th century" that greatly slowed down in tempo as it "gained in respectability" in the early 17th century. Schenkman's refined and articulate playing reveled in every strand of this delightful set of variations. Pachelbel has a connection to the Carolinas: his son, Carl Theodor Pachelbel, came to America about 1730, serving as "organist for churches in Boston, Newport, New York, and, finally Charleston, South Carolina, where he was buried in 1750."

Before playing Bach's Violin Sonata in C, S.1005, Matthews explained that the program listing – with an intermission during the work – was not a misprint. She regards these sonatas as "moving through a landscape" and, in this case, because of the long Fuga, "like climbing a mountain." When she takes a hike, she likes "to take a break." Using slower tempos than some have taken, she played with warm dulcet tone and great clarity, projecting a clear overview of the piece as a whole, despite the break. Her bowing is always remarkably clean and clear with no accidental scraping of adjoining strings. Her intonation was also excellent.

Matthews and Schenkman teamed up again for the lovely final work, Bach's Sonata in A, S.1015, for violin and harpsichord. There was an otherworldly quality about their playing of the opening Dolce. The Allegro was bright and cheerful. The Andante, with its lovely violin melody gliding above a gorgeous lute stop, was a highlight for me. Both players were astonishing as they sustained clarity despite the fast clip of the concluding Presto. This was especially true of the keyboard part, despite the density of notes.

Hearty audience response was rewarded with the Allegro first movement of Bach's Sonata No. 6 in G, S.1019. This concert augured well for the second year of the festival.