Leave It to Biber
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Jerry Young, Fri., Sept. 3, 2004
Leave It to Biber
First Presbyterian Church of Austin, Aug. 27
Hearing violinist Boel Gidholm, cellist Christopher Haritatos, and keyboardist Keith Womer in this season's opening concert for the St. Cecilia Music Series, it is easy to see how musicians could become devoted to that untamed but largely overlooked violin music being written when Stradivarius and Amati were building violins.
The patterns of sonata and fugue hadn't been established yet, and as Haritatos pointed out, the cello hadn't evolved yet, which gave these composers an innocent freedom to create strikingly original and, most of all, expressive music, and Gidholm, Haritatos, and Womer exulted in the expressive freedom that this music offers the interpreter. Thirty years ago, early music performances were guided by an academic scrupulosity, yielding cautious, noncommittal performances, but these players didn't make you notice that a gesture might represent urgency or resignation; they made you feel it.
The first half of the program featured links between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Hearing these works by Giovanni Cima, Dario Castello, Giovanni Fontana, Tarquinio Merula, and Giovanni Mealli, made clear that they drew their expressiveness from the human voice. These were essentially accompanied dialogues between the violin and an incompletely specified ancestor of the cello; in the hands of Gidholm and Haritatos, one could imagine that there were words to these emotive melodies, which they wove into affecting musical pantomimes.
Gidholm especially plays with an earthy directness, enthusiastically in sync with the music's emphasis on mercurial drama rather than on the architecture of tonality (none of the titles of the string works on the program bore a key signature). Much of the expressiveness lies in personalizing the ornamentation. Where modern musicians come equipped with a fairly dusty set of well-polished, shrink-wrapped trills, mordents, and appoggiaturas, Gidholm spontaneously effuses ornamental figures and unique vocalistic touches that can't possibly have a name.
With the sense of freedom came an element of surprise, and the trio did not telegraph their punches; a fierce accelerando in Castello's Sonata Settina was jarringly brazen, as it no doubt was four centuries ago.
As the program passed toward the 18th century, the sonatas V and VI from Heinrich Biber's Grosse Sonatas and the two prototypical works for cello by Domenico Gabrieli showed the writing becoming less vocalistic and more exploitative of the instruments. Still, the works were overloaded with expressive effects and unpredictable trap-door harmonies that would have been outlawed by the 18th century but which Haritatos and Bidholm exulted in. Biber is famous for using scordatura, or alternative tunings, and in the Sonata VI, calls for it between movements. Womer artfully gave the pitches by playing little figurations, which turned an awkward interruption into a pleasant break.
Tucked within this evolutionary survey of the "ascent of the viol" were two movements from a Partita by Johann Froberger, through whose lamentations Womer exploited the expressiveness of mean-tone tuning. Like a small wound that he won't let heal, Froberger continually returned to a figure that exposed a single bent note, with which Womer created poignant moments of savored pain that knit the brow like Bessie Smith.