Sonnambula shakes it up with early Baroque music for viols

Sat Oct 12, 2019 at 2:57 pm
Sonnambula presented a concert at the Baruch Performing Arts Center Friday night. Photo: Paula Lobo

Last season in New York, if you said you were going to hear Sonnambula at the Met, you would have had  to specify if you meant the opera by Bellini (which wasn’t playing at the time) or the consort of viols that was then the Ensemble-in-Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Friday night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, listeners were treated to another helping of the zesty artistry that inspired that prestigious appointment, the first ever for a viol consort at the Met.

Like the art on the museum’s walls, the repertoire of Sonnambula—Elizabeth Weinfield, artistic director; Jude Ziliak and Toma Iliev, violins; Weinfield and Amy Domingues, tenor viols; Shirley Hunt, bass viol; and James Kennerley, organ—represents a dazzling variety of places and eras, from Russia to the New World and from the late Middle Ages to the early 18th century.

Friday’s program focused on a narrow but significant slice of that repertoire: Austria in the era of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), an internationally recognized violinist and composer who was enjoying his heyday when Bach and Handel were babes in arms.

As indicated in the title of one of Biber’s published collections, Fidicinium Sacra-Profanum, this was a time when sacred and secular styles of music making were beginning to overlap, and flashy or folksy idioms for entertainment jostled with learned counterpoint in church and at home.

On Friday, a blindfolded listener—and one was effectively that, as the house lights were too low to read the program—might have had trouble distinguishing music inspired by Christianity’s deepest mysteries and that borrowed from the village fiddler.

For example, the concert opened with the ear-clearing Sonata Nona a 5 from a 1682 collection by Johann Rosenmüller, in which the full ensemble, fortified (at times a bit too much) by Kennerley’s fleshy organ tone, resounded with hymn-like melodies and danced the light fantastic in rapid succession.

Following that, violinist Iliev soloed (with continuo) in The Annunciation, the first of Biber’s “mystery sonatas” from about 1676, in which Mary’s discovery that she is to give birth to the Son of God was commemorated in blazing passagework and gentle cantabile phrases. Then a sober passacaglia, variations over a repeating bass line, blossomed into virtuoso display. Religious or secular? Two centuries later, Franz Liszt had a word for it: transcendental.

Biber’s Sonata V from a 1681 collection bore no religious title, but shared with the previous sonata a volatile, episodic style and a restless imagination. Violinist Ziliak’s light touch and shadings in staccato runs was exemplary, and the continuo of Kennerley and violist Weinfield stayed right with him on the sonata’s capricious course.

By way of prelude to the impressive Biber sonata that closed the program’s first half, the group threw in an entertainment by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer titled Sonata a 3, Polnische Sackpfeifen (Polish Bagpipes). The title said it all, as the two violinists and a continuo of Kennerley and violist Hunt tootled tunes in a modal scale over a variety of humming drones.

Biber’s Sonata Prima from Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum took the sonata model of short, contrasting sections to another level, as the full ensemble glowed in the adagio moments and leaped athletically in the faster ones. By artful use of tempo and touch, organist Kennerley created the illusion of inflecting phrases in the same way as his string-playing colleagues.

Composer Schmelzer returned to open the second half with a piece as dignified as the bagpipes had been comical, Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinando III for the full ensemble minus Hunt’s bass viol. With its Handelian opening aria, string quartet-like give-and-take, and closing minuet with zippy variations, this 1657 piece seemed to point ahead to the late Baroque or even Classical eras.

Kennerley followed with a bizarre organ solo, Johann Caspar Kerll’s Toccata 4, Cromatica con durezze e ligature (Chromatic with hard sounds and suspensions), which the organist aptly described as a “harmonic labyrinth.”  In a few minutes of steady adagio, the composer smeared chords together and went to harmonic regions forbidden for an instrument with old-fashioned “unequal” tuning, to ear-rattling effect.

The full ensemble closed the program with three more items, stepping back in time for two 1621 pieces by Samuel Scheidt, then coming part way back for Schmelzer in 1668. Like other “battle” pieces of the period, Scheidt’s Galliard Battaglia dealt in bouncy rhythms and simplified harmony, as the two violins locked horns in a virtuoso duel. In his Canzon super “O Nachbar Roland, volatility in the violins spread to the other instruments while tempos and meters changed constantly. Harmonies were again labyrinthine, this time executed with flawless intonation by the strings.

Schmelzer’s experimental Harmonia a 5 had something of a numerical obsession, its five-part harmony featuring many open-fifth intervals, and even closing with a lopsided dance in unconventional 5/4 meter. Besides these intellectual stimulations, the piece was memorable for its rich low sonorities—a reminder, as the audience departed, that while ensembles of viols may be out of fashion now, in their day they could make the floor shake.

Baruch Performing Arts Center will present pianist Alon Goldstein in works of Scarlatti, Beethoven, Janáček, Debussy and Ginastera, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22. baruch.cuny.edu/bpac; 212-352-3101.


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