The Salem Bach Festival presented its eighth season this weekend with three concerts in Winston-Salem, NC under the leadership of Glenn Siebert and Timothy Olsen. Saturday evening, playing violin and theorbo (a stringed instrument which the player plucks and strums the all-important basso continuo part that traditionally accompanies a solo instrument or singer), Ingrid Matthews, violinist, and John Lenti, theorbist, mesmerized the large audience in the exquisite Watson Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a recital of seven works, mostly composed by Austrian composers who were popular in the century preceding the eponymous Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1770).

This writer has spent most of his adult life in pursuit of classical, romantic, and contemporary orchestral music and readily admits to the lacune early music occupies in his listening experience. So it is with some surprise that I admit to having been delighted and charmed by this concert and moved by the intensity conveyed by many of the pieces. Two of those works were Sonatas (No. 4 and No. 2) by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680) and two (Passacaglia and Sonata No. 5) by a presumed student of his, Heinrich Ignaz von Biber (1644-1707). The Passacaglia is a moody and passionate piece, built on and around four repeated notes: G – F – Eb – D in G minor. Along with the sonata by Philipp Friedrich Böddecker (1607-1683), these five works stood out as peaks in an otherwise charming landscape.

Although called “sonata,” these five works were not yet developed into the musical form of the “sonata” with its contrasting section and recapitulation that developed in Italy in the contrapuntal style of Domenico Scarlatti or the classical style of “Papa” Haydn. By comparison, these early pre-Bach sonatas Matthews and Lenti played were more linear and frequently built around a rather short repeated sequence, which became gradually more complex until the climax of the movement was reached, whereupon a rapid dénouement ensued followed by a short tail or “coda.”

But the build-up was exciting and rarified, following a single line, higher and more complex, until the egg cracked or the cup overflowed and we found ourselves back in the concert hall with a quintessential aftertaste of the sublime! A couple of contrasting pieces put smiles on our faces – a theorbo solo, an arpeggio arrangement of an early (1602) song from the Classical Songbook of Italy (Amarilli, mia bella by Giulio Caccini, 1551-1618) and Toccata arpeggione by Hieronymus Kapsberger (1580-1651).

Both soloists are alumni of UNCSA and have recorded extensively; Matthews’ recording of the complete Sonatas and Partitas by J. S. Bach is one of the best on the market. The Salem Bach Festival started in June 2005 as the Magnolia Baroque Festival.

The entire concert hardly lasted an hour and there was no intermission – I would have been happy to have stayed for a second hour!