IN: Reviews

Mercurial Sonatas Preserve the Universe


“Early Moderns: The (very) First Viennese School,” part of Quicksilver’s first tour since the Covid-19 pandemic, followed a CD release of similar music last year. The title plays on the periodized labels that classify composers like Haydn and Mozart as the ‘First Viennese School.’ This project reframes the beginning of the city’s musical culture in its deeper history of the 17th century Hapsburg Imperial court. Ten diverse sonatas by sundry Viennese composers came to First Church in Cambridge, Congregational on Friday evening under the Boston Early Music Festival brand.

In a virtual preconcert talk posted to BEFM’s YouTube channel, co-director Robert Mealy discussed the history of the sonata form. Around 1620, Vienna’s music scene was dominated by Italian composers who composed monodies in the stile moderno. These vocal pieces used changes of texture and liberal dissonances to express the meaning of a text. Viennese composers combined this extravagant Italian style with Germanic counterpoint and chromatic harmony to create an instrumental genre autonomous of a text. Unlike the familiar Classical- and Romantic- Era’ multimovement sonatas for one or two players, 17th century sonatas form self-contained chamber pieces with contrasting subsections. The genre lacks any formalized strictures aside from the multi-sectional construction. Some sonatas are progressive, moving in a linear progression from one emotion (or tonality) to another, while others are cyclical, returning the listener to the initial emotional state after a journey of sorts. Johann Mattheson, one of the few composers to articulate his thoughts on the genre, wrote that these pieces are meant “to please, to overwhelm, and to astonish.”

In his talk, Mealy mentioned the French writer Fontenelle’s quip: “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” Modern audiences often wonder the same thing. German theorists rationalized it in rhetorical terms, identifying in its sections an opening exordium, presentation of ideas, alternative points of view (in contrasting musical sections), and culmination in a peroration. While this framework gives some meaning to the form’s scattered structure, it interprets a sonata like a vocal work and ignores the uniquely instrumental aspects of the music. The members of Quicksilver focus on interpreting the small, intensely vivid gestures that build the musical language of these pieces. This approach brought out the unique qualities of each sonata in a wordless dialogue among musicians.

Only the first and last sonatas required the whole band. Sonata VII à 5 by Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer felt like an overture to the concert, utilizing the complete ensemble without showcasing any single instrument. The musicians played precisely together, carefully phrasing with uniform entrances and breaths. They shaped the movement with changes of timbre and color, especially the wind players, Dominic Teresi and Greg Ingles. The delightfully humorous Sonata X à 5 by Johann Rosenmüller served as an effective finale for the concert; its unexpectedly hushed conclusion elicited a chuckle from several before the rapturous applause demanded three rounds of bows.

The other sonatas divided the musicians into creative groupings. Andreas Oswald’s Sonata à 3 pitted a single violin against sackbut and dulcian. Charles Weaver’s Baroque guitar sharpened the rhythms of this lively number. Johann Joseph Fux’s Sonata à 4 featured contrapuntal duets that alternated between violin with dulcian and violin with sackbut. These passages allowed the audience to appreciate the divergent playing styles of different instrumentalists. Schmeltzer’s Sonata à 4 “La Carolietta” exhibited passages of dialogue, where two instruments share a solo through call-and-response. The placement of the musicians on stage (the violins to the left, winds to the right) highlighted the polychoral nature of the proceedings as changing expression of the performers revealed the evolving textures.

Several sonatas demanded virtuosic execution. Antonio Bertali’s Sonata à 3 required Dominic Teresi (dulcian) to play two 20-second pedal points beneath the violin’s cadenzas. In these exhilarating moments, he produced a thin ribbon of sound beneath the fluttering strings that grew to a howl echoing off the back wall. David Morris (viola da gamba) had some of the most difficult passagework in Johann Caspar Kerll’s Sonata à tre. The contrapuntal texture of the sonata often unwound into intense solos which Morris managed with clarity. Avi Stein (harpsichord) supported these changing textures by varying his continuo realizations, moving between a simpler comping style beneath solos and florid arpeggios to shape cadences and transitions. Stein’s solo Passacaglia variations by Kerll offered a change of mood moving into the later half of the concert. He moved fluidly among variations, while brilliantly bringing out musical topics that imitated a violinists’ bariolage or a guitarist’s tremolo.

The most touching moment came in Kerll’s Sonata à 2. The violinists stood on opposite sides of the stage, flanking the continuo group. Robert Mealy’s and Julie Andrijeski’s expressive ornaments humanized the music in the solos. The emotional intimacy intensified as the continuo players took turns accompanying the solos, Weaver joining Mealy for his solos and Stein with Andrijeski for hers. The arrangement aroused feelings of separation and alienation. After a straightforward ending, the sonata culminated with an unexpected plagal cadence, which Mealy and Andrijeski ornamented gracefully. A very long pause ensued between cutoff and applause. At that moment, I remembered a quote from Athanasius Kircher which Mealy shared in his talk:

…Although I had investigated some extraordinary things in music, I could not remember that I had ever perceived something similar…[It] moved the spirit into I know not what character of sweeter affection, to compassion, divine love, and thus by this very incomparable symphony my soul was ravished by a certain exotic emotion into the miraculous harmony of the celestial orbs. All in all, I had discovered that this intense harmony sounded together was a way to preserve the universe.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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  1. “All in all, I had discovered that this intense harmony sounded together was a way to preserve the universe.”

    Oh, we need that. I wish I’d been there.

    Comment by Jane Troy — March 13, 2023 at 9:00 pm

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