Quince, a five-part string band composed of Dana Maiben, Andrew Fouts, and Martha Perry, all playing both violin and viola, Jason Fisher, viola, and Margaret Cushing, cello, gave a concert comprised entirely of the music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern in the First Church in Cambridge’s Lindsay Chapel last Sunday. Quince was joined by guest artist harpsichordist Henry Lebedinsky, skillfully filling in the basso continuo. Biber (1644-1704) was a violin virtuoso and composer, working first in Graz and Krom??íž before moving to Salzburg in 1670. He was widely popular both as a soloist and as a composer, pushing the limits of violin performance, and publishing many collections of music for the instrument. ‘The Phantastic Mr. Biber’, the title of the concert, refers to musica phantastica or music that pushes harmony and counterpoint in new directions, something Biber achieved, as the concert clearly demonstrated.
The first half of the program presented sonatas from four of these collections, roughly in chronological order of their composition. Quince and Lebedinsky played with verve and great flexibility, with the three violin/violists trading positions and instruments at the end of each sonata. The first sonata, composed in 1676, was a theme and variations for two violins, two violas, and continuo. The two violins (Maiben and Perry) were on the left, the two violas on the right. Sometimes Fisher’s part joined the cello, and was sometimes independent. Themes started by the two violins passed seamlessly to the violas – a compositional technique that Biber repeated throughout the concert. This piece was followed by a solo violin and continuo composition from 1681, expertly played by Maiben. In several places Lebedinsky echoed or expanded (improvised?) on the violin material while the viola played accompaniment. Very nice.
The next piece was a four-part piece from 1680 – a set of dances in a minor. Perry and Fouts played violin, with Maiben on viola, and Cushing on cello. The first dance started with a descending phrase of four notes, each played by a different instrument. In the swimmy acoustics of Lindsay Chapel, you could not hear the sound move across the group without looking – but I think it might have been a marvelous effect in better acoustics. All the dances were cheerful and fast except the aria, which was surprisingly chromatic, strongly reminiscent of Purcell (who was writing at about the same time).
The first half finished with another sonata, this time in C-Major. The counterpoint was more complex than the previous pieces, and there were lots of exchanges between the violins and violas. Biber was known for popularizing scordatura, pieces for instruments deliberately mis-tuned in an effort to produce a completely new sound (more fantasia). The group demonstrated this with the Sonata III in A-Major for two violins [scordatura] and basso continuo from 1696. The violins were both tuned A-E-A-E. The Praeludium consisted of A major fanfares alternating between the two violins, with the continuo playing the same A-Major chord continuously. A Major dominated the dances that followed – amply proving that a little A major goes a long way, and perhaps less would be more. Relief came in the form of e minor in the next piece, a series of Purcellian laments from 1670, only the Gigue of which was upbeat.
By this time, I was beginning to have difficulty concentrating, although I found the last three pieces pleasant. (The standout was the Passacaglia for solo violin in g minor, played with great skill by Fouts.) Perhaps there is a limit to how much Biber one can imbibe – but I think the problem lay in another domain. Lindsay Chapel is a poor venue for this music. The chapel is small, seating at most about fifty people. It is tall – perhaps 25’ or more – with a cylindrical ceiling of about a 15’ radius. There is no acoustic absorption except for that provided by the musicians and the audience – and this is not sufficient to damp frequencies below about 1000Hz. The fundamentals of the instruments and the spoken voice boom out strongly enough to mask information in the upper frequencies. The cello was particularly hard-hit. It takes a great deal of mental effort to hear the music, and the brain tires of it. The cylindrical ceiling focuses the sound of the instruments down on the audience. The ceiling reflection is strong enough to mask the direct sound of the instruments. From where I sat it was impossible to tell which instrument had played which note without using the eyes, and many of the notes only contributed to harmony. It is very hard to hold your attention in these conditions.
On occasion Margaret Cushing spoke from the center of the platform. I could hear her reasonably well. But Dana Maiben, speaking from the left of the stage, was nearly incomprehensible due to the enormous boom of the lower – and non-information-carrying – frequencies in her voice. During intermission I experimented by moving closer to people talking. Moving closer made little difference. The boom is just too strong. The plink of the harpsichord cut through these acoustics, since the lower frequencies are neither strong enough nor last long enough to excite the excessive reverberation. But the string sound really suffers. The venue was the only downside of an otherwise delightful concert.