The North Carolina HIP (Historically Informed Performance) Music Festival began this weekend and will run through February 28 in various venues in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. Drawing from the wealth of outstanding early music ensembles based in the Triangle and Virginia, as well as renowned international musicians, the NC HIP Music Festival will showcase over 100 musicians from 10 different organizations in 11 concerts. Additionally, Mallarmé Chamber Players will present in-school Baroque violin workshops, an open rehearsal and a panel discussion. For detailed information click here.

This past Saturday and Sunday, concerts featuring the music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber opened the festival. Biber is widely held to have been the finest violinist of the seventeenth century. He was also a highly innovative composer whose works – most notably his sonatas for violin – are gaining new prominence in the performing repertory. The concerts provided a relatively rare opportunity to hear the Mystery Sonatas in their entirety on one occasion.

Biber (1644-1704) was born in Bohemia where he played violin and gamba in the aristocratic courts of Moravia. In 1670, he abandoned this position without permission, and relocated in Salzburg where he spent the rest of his life, dying there at age 59.

The cluster of outstanding musicians for these performances at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church included violinists Elizabeth Field, founder and co-director of The Vivaldi Project; Fiona Hughes, who has appeared widely with orchestras and chamber groups on the east coast; Gesa Kordes, who appears with numerous chamber ensembles and baroque orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic; Peter Lekz, who lives in Montreal and performs across Canada and the United States; Martha Perry, who performs on Baroque violin and viola, and resides in Bloomington, Indiana; and the widely known avid chamber musician, David Wilson.

The cellists were Barbara Krumdieck and Stephanie Vial. Gail Ann Schroeder played viola da gamba. The keyboardists, playing organ or harpsichord, were Jacqueline Nappi, Jennifer Streeter, and Barbara Weiss. The concerts were organized and coordinated by Mallarmé artistic director, Suzanne Rousso.

Biber’s Mystery Sonatas (or Rosary Sonatas, or Copper-Engraving Sonatas) consist of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo and a concluding passacaglia for solo violin. They are remarkable on several accounts: the outstanding descriptive musical language, the virtuosic technical demands (multiple stops, intricate polyphonic passages) and the use of scordatura tuning, wherein one or more of the violin strings is tuned up or down to enrich sonorities, harmonies and tonal colors. The notes are played as written on the musical score, but those on the altered string(s) sound differently. As can be imagined, this can be quit disconcerting to the performing artist and require some getting used to.

The fifteen sonatas are based on the Mysteries of the Rosary and are divided into three sections: 1-5 Joyful Mysteries (The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity, The Presentation of the Infant Jesus and The 12-year-Old Jesus), 6-10 Sorrowful Mysteries (Christ on the Mount of Olives, The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crown of Thorns, Jesus Carries the Cross and The Crucifixion), and 11-15 Glorious Mysteries (The Resurrection, The Ascension, Pentecost, The Assumption of the Virgin and The Beatification of the Virgin).The sonatas of the Joyful Mysteries reference events from the early life of Jesus and, in general, the scordatura tuning emphasizes the bright and resonant sounds of the violin. Number 3 (The Nativity), performed by Lekz, Krumdieck and Nappi, was a good example. It began with an intricate courante with the bow dancing lightly across the strings. It then moved to an adagio section with some awesome double stops and implied counterpoint featuring a gentle melody. The impact was like hearing a nursery ballad.

The scordatura tunings of the sonatas of The Five Sorrowful Mysteries tone down the violin’s bright sound and create slight dissonances. In some instances, the range from the lowest to the highest string is restricted and produces conflicting vibrations that contribute to the expression of tension in the suffering of Christ.

The last of the Sorrowful Mysteries, The Crucifixion (performed by Hughes, Vial and Streeter), used a more sonorous tuning to underline the significance and awesome emotion within the events of Jesus’ last hours of pain. It is one of the longer sonatas and is one of the most intricately developed. It began with a four note pattern suggestive of making the sign of the cross. The continuo instruments were more engaged with some pizzicato cello and interplay with the violin. A vigorous dotted-note pattern gave way to a quiet, ethereal ending.

One of the most notable of the Five Glorious Mysteries was The Ascension, performed by Wilson, Krumdieck and Streeter. The tuning is bright and open and Biber evokes the celebratory sound of trumpet and tympani with violin and continuo instruments. Opening with a homophonic hymn, the trumpet and drum passage leads to a stately processional with wonderful interaction between the violin and continuo instruments.

There were passages that were powerfully suggestive, others were more meditative and reflective. Some of the rapid and intricate runs would not be out of place as cadenzas in a violin concerto. There were jaw-dropping multiple stop passages and demanding figures and techniques exhibited by each of the world-class artists participating in this two-day concert. It was a joy and a rich pleasure to hear the complete work from beginning to end.

The crowning jewel of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas is the concluding passacaglia. It was heard in a sensational performance by Wilson. For this amazing masterpiece, the strings of the violin are tuned normally. It begins with the passacaglia pattern (G – F– E-flat – D). Over that continually repeating pattern, a variety of counterpoint melodies are introduced, each increasing in complexity and intensity until, near the end, the counter themes quiet down, but the passacaglia theme is always there.

The engraving printed on the publisher’s copperplate of this sonata is a winged angel walking with its hand holding the hand of an accompanying child. The intention of both the engraving and the music is to indicate that the guardian angel is always there, at the beginning and at the end, no matter what else is going on. Wilson’s performance, technically flawless, musically aware of the period and the intent of the composer, was emotionally compelling and resulted in an atmosphere of absolute silence – almost as though no one were breathing. When it ended, there seemed to be a reluctance to disturb the silence which still held the gentle vibrations of the strings of the violin. It was profound.

The NC HIP Music Festival continues through February 28. For details see their website and the CVNC calendar.