The program got off to a pleasant start with at Sonatina I by Johann Schmelzer (1620-1680) but the next two pieces were overshadowed by egregious intonation issues. Playing consistently in tune is challenge for any musician but it is a full-on battle for those who play on period instruments.
Wobbly intonation is not uncommon in the period performance world; the most charitable explanation for which is the volatility of gut strings when confronted with changes in temperature or humidity. Whether that’s a charming peccadillo or a dealbreaker is a matter of rather hotly-contested opinion.
The first half also featured the Canon and Gig in D major by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), a piece I described last season as having “about as much artistic merit as a drunken cameraphone snap of the neighbour’s cat.” In the program notes, Nota Bene continuo player Borys Medicky argued a strong case for poor Pachelbel and emphasized that the various atrocities committed at wedding ceremonies were not at all consistent with the score. I like to think that I am open to having my mind changed, so I laid down my Pachelbel prejudice as best I could and prepared to be amazed.
Nota Bene’s intimate knowledge of 17th century music, as archaic as that may seem, meant the piece was played at a sprightly tempo and phrased in two bars instead of four. Love would certainly be too strong a word to describe my feeling, as would like but, for the first time in 10 years, dislike doesn’t apply either.
Pachelbel was back after the intermission but this time with a far more substantial piece. The Partie a 4 has seven movements based on Baroque dances like you would find in JS Bach’s Cello Suites, Violin Sonatas and Partitas. Nota Bene use audible breathing to help keep every one together and it works very well. Throughout the concert, their ensemble was excellent.
One of the best things about Baroque music is the expression of strong emotion within the confines of the 17th century aesthetic. Schmelzer’s Lament On The Death Of Ferdinand III was the perfect example of this. Although it is designated a tre, meaning with three non-continuo voices, it was primarily a solo vehicle for the first violin played brilliantly by Julie Baumgartel. Her strong technique and broad dynamic range lay to rest any ideas about period instruments being shy, introverted versions of their steel-stringed cousins.
Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) is one of the most imaginative composers for violin. One of his favourite tricks was scordatura, where the strings of the violin are tuned differently than that standard GDAE. Alternate tuning is tricky on a modern violin but with a recalcitrant Baroque fiddle, it can be a nightmare. Nota Bene leader, Linda Melsted fought the good fight, in Biber’s showy Sonata XI a violino solo and prevailed. The sonata is lengthy by Baroque standards and demands lyrical and technical playing in equal measure. Melsted can do both and gave an athletic but nuanced performance.
The final piece of the evening was Seranada, also by Biber. The Ciacona was delightfully whimsical with the orchestra becoming ukuleles to accompany The Night Watchman’s Song sung by baritone Eric Tanguay.