He Called For His Fiddlers Three, and Did They Fiddle: Juilliard Baroque Perform Early Music

United StatesUnited States  Juilliard Baroque’s “The Three Fiddlers”: Monica Huggett, Cynthia Roberts, Robert Mealy (violins), Phoebe Carrai (cello), Avi Stein (harpsichord), Paul Hall, Juilliard School of Music, New York,27-9-2011 (SSM)

G.B. Buonamente – Sonata a tre violini (from Sonate e canzoni…libro sesto 1636)
Giovanni Gabrieli – Sonata XXI a tre violini from Canzoni e sonate
Domenico Gabrielli – Ricercare #7 in D Minor
Thomas BaltzarMr. Baltzar’s Consort for Three Violins
Nicola Matteis – Divisions in D Minor
Henry PurcellThree Parts on a Ground
Biagio Marini – Sonata “in Ecco” fron Sonate, Op. 8 and Passacaglio from Per ogni sorte di strumento, Op. 22
Marco Uccellini – Sonata duodecima from Sonate, sinfonie et correnti, libro II
John BlowPrelude and Morlake Ground
Giovanni Battista Fontana – Sonata Sestadecima a tre violini from Sonate (1641)
Johann Vierdanck – Capriccio for three violins from Ander Theil Capricci
Johann Pachelbel – Canon and Gigue in D Major

What makes the difference between a routine performance and one that sparkles is ineffable. When the performance is by a chamber group the rapport between members is critical, and there was no question about rapport being there in this first event of the Juilliard School’s Historical Performance season. Monica Huggett led the other three string players in a performance of mainly unknown works of the 17th century, and the enthusiasm of the group was contagious.

In other Baroque groups, the players sometimes go on autopilot. Think of the poor musicians playing “The Four Seasons” to tourists three or four times a week at the Sainte-Chapelle inParis. What would they give to have a chance to perform first-rate music from virtually unknown predecessors of Vivaldi, as was the case here.

One wonders what Ms. Huggett’s source is for this wonderful musical cache. At a concert by her students at Juilliard last year, there were works by some of the composers listed above but also pieces by Castello, Rossi, Legrenzi, Bertali and Jarzębski. Some names may be recognized by those interested in Baroque music, but outside of specialists their names and music are scarcely known.

The Buonamente sonata which opened the concert begins with a slow almost improvised fantasia, progressing to a faster more imitative section where each instrument repeats the first violinist’s passages. It then returns to the tempo of the first section, but ends with the fast imitative runs of the second section. This piece was played with both poignancy in the slow sections and spirited élan in the faster ones.

One normally thinks of Giovanni Gabrieli as a composer of fanfare music for brass.  It came as a surprise to hear a sonata from his Canzoni e sonate performed for strings, yet one could almost hear the trumpets and trombones as played by the Juilliard Baroque.

The cellist Phoebe Carrai performed one of the evening’s highlights, the Ricercare No. 7 by Domenico Gabrielli. Ms. Carrai gave an accomplished presentation of this precursor of the Bach cello suites, which starts off with what sounds very much like the theme of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. This short motif with variations, although not a dance movement as are those of Bach’s suites, had nearly the emotional impact of one of his great cello sarabandes.

Thomas Baltzar’s Consort for Three Violins consists of 10 dances, several of which were played here. These delightful excerpts look forward to the Baroque suite of dances of Bach, Handel and Telemann. There was less use of imitative techniques by the strings in these movements which gave them a more modern sound.

Nicola Matteis, who flourished just a little later than the previous composers on the program, gives more independence to the cello in his spirited Divisions in D minor. The term “division” refers to a form that breaks down or “divides” the theme as a method of creating variations.

A chaconne by Purcell ended the first half of the concert. The chaconne, like its less ubiquitous cousin, the fandago, has an elemental, almost hypnotic quality created by the continuous variations played upon the repetitive bass. Most Baroque composers wrote chaconnes, all different yet in some ways all the same.

It took a couple of repetitions of Marini’s Sonata “in Ecco” to realize that the echoed strings initiated by Ms. Huggett were coming from offstage. The echo effect was another popular conceit of the Baroque period and the performance here was particularly amusing.

The Uccellini piece that followed is a slight work with an interesting tempo and a rhythmic change midway before it closes with the original tempo. Next came John Blow’s lovely prelude and ground; another chaconne, it could have been written by one of his predecessors, William Byrd or even Louis Couperin. Giving the string players a brief rest, Ari Stein played this harpsichord solo with loving sensitivity.

The sonata for three violins by G.B. Fontana reverts back to a more traditional musical style. Here the third violin is left out of the opening back and forth repartee between first and second violinists. Robert Mealy waited for his chance later on to outdo both of the violinists with improvisatory virtuosic playing and excelled as soloist.

After another slight work by Johann Vierdanck in the traditional imitative style with the second and third violinists repeating the first violinist’s passages, we finally come to a work that is not only well-known but “over-known”, the Pachelbel Canon in D, performed here with the less frequently played Gigue. Like the Adagio attributed to Albinoni the Canon in D has become such a commonly played theme for TV and movies that something special has to be done to refresh its original appeal. Recorded transcriptions abound, from serious instrumentations for piano, for guitar and for lute and harp to the outrageous inclusions in Star Trek and Techno Rock mixes.  There are even Hip Hop interpretations and something entitled “Sotthing [sic] Music to Calm Your Mind.” Happily there is also the Juilliard Baroque to strip away the patina and expose the Canon in D in its original state.

Appreciative thanks goes to the group for giving life back to the Canon and new life to all the works performed.

Stan Metzger