July 3, 2018

Summer Chamber Concerts Kicks Off Season With Baroque Chamber Music

By Nancy Plum

’Tis the week for 18th-century music in the Princeton area. Princeton Festival has been showcasing its Baroque Festival Orchestra and Chamber Ensemble, and for the first time in its 51-year history, Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts has presented a Baroque instrumental ensemble. Last Tuesday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium featured the chamber ensemble REBEL, named after the early French composer Jean-Féry Rebel. REBEL has been performing worldwide for more than 25 years, winning numerous awards while compiling an impressive roster of instrumentalists. Tuesday night’s concert brought two violinists, one violoncello, and a harpsichord to Princeton, performing a potpourri of 17th and 18th-century pieces. It was a unique program of music for three strings, but no viola, and the collection of multi-movement works presented on period instruments showed solid partnership among violinists Jôrg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer, cellist John Moran, and harpsichordist Dongsok Shin.

The concert seemed to move chronologically through the Baroque era, occasionally taking a step back to illustrate how the more complex musical effects of the 18th century came to be. Violinists Schwarz and Marmer both played with a lean sound and little vibrato, with cellist Moran showing a strong musical presence onstage. Included in the concert were two works of Georg Philipp Telemann, one of the compositional masters of the era, and the four musicians of REBEL effectively paid close attention to dynamic shadings and variety in sequential passages in these pieces.

Although a generation or two before the Telemann works, Sonata La Cornara, Op. 2 by Venetian composer Giovanni Legrenzi sounded compositionally advanced for the mid-17th century. Marmer led the players well through the three-movement work, and the two violinists created a very courtly atmosphere in the middle Adagio.

REBEL brought an educational component to the performance by explaining, for example, why the violinists changed bows for specific musical textures. First violinist Schwarz was an equal partner to second violinist Marmer, with each taking the lead in different pieces. Throughout it all, Shin provided solid and sensitive keyboard accompaniment on the harpsichord.

Domenico Gabrielli’s Sonate á Violoncello solo, dating from mid-17th century Bologna, showcased the cello and harpsichord, as Moran brought out the long melodic lines of the piece’s Largo section, followed by an energetic and rollicking Prestissimo to close the work. REBEL grouped the Legrenzi and Gabrielli pieces with the four-movement Sonata Op. 3, No. 6 by Arcangelo Corelli, who was key in establishing the preeminence of the violin in the Baroque form. One of 12 sonatas in this opus, No. 6 was grounded in the continuo of cello and harpsichord while the two violins darted and swooped through melodic lines above. Schwarz played a particularly agile cadenza bridging the second movement with the two faster movements which followed. The typically Baroque elements of fugue were well handled by the two violinists.

Another educational moment came with REBEL’s performance of Domenico Gallo’s Sonata II in B flat Major, which until recently had been attributed to Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and was considered the basis for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella. Cellist Moran explained to the audience that the music had been brought to England by an “English nobleman,” and in his opinion, the sonata may have been composed by the nobleman himself. As played by REBEL, the piece sounded light and airy with a great deal of dynamic contrast and a particularly refined Adagio section.

No musical journey through 18th-century Italy can ignore one of the era’s greatest composers — Antonio Vivaldi, whose virtuosity on the violin enabled him to write particularly fluidly for the instrument. Vivaldi composed his trio sonata Opus 1, No. 12 based on a popular “Follia,” or recurring chord progression, to musically “one-up” Corelli, who had previously composed a set of “Follia” variations. Vivaldi added a second violin to his work, as well as spirited dotted rhythms, fast fingering requirements, and a very complex running harpsichord accompaniment. The musicians of REBEL emphasized the quick dialog between the two violinists and the fiery unison passages contained in the 19 variations on the original “Follia.” With each variation more complex than the one before, this piece was a lesson in Baroque string performance technique, ranging from extended melodic lines to strong pizzicato playing from the cello to Moran at times striking the side of his instrument as a drum. By closing the concert with a work from a composer considered the epitome of the Baroque era, REBEL showed why they are among the most widely-heard Baroque ensembles in the country today.