Enticed by the lure of an infrequent visit by the Pittsburgh-based ensemble Chatham Baroque, your critic took his jalopy eastward for the first time to the Music House in Greenville, a stunningly decorated early twentieth-century mansion in uptown Greenville, where the music room is provided with organ, harpsichord, grand piano, and harp. Chatham Baroque, which is now in its 23rd year, has a plethora of excellent recordings to its credit, the most recent a 2011 release of Kapsberger on its own label. Listeners at the Music House (a large group despite the perfect weather outside) were treated to selections from two programs to be presented later in the week at the Piccolo Spoleto festival in South Carolina. The players were: Andrew Fouts, violin; Patricia Halverson, viola da gamba; Scott Pauley, theorbo, baroque guitar; with John O’Brien, organ, harpsichord.
Opening the program was a trio sonata by Dietrich Buxtehude, with the solo lines taken by the violin and gamba, and continuo duties by theorbo and organ. It is a typical seventeenth-century sonata in which a single long movement includes contrasting material. In this case Buxtehude weaves a single harmonic pattern through several different meters, with intricate conversation between the two solo voices.
Next up was a rarity, an adagio movement from a concerto written by Tartini for his friend Vandini, apparently intended for the rare and obsolete bass violin here expressively rendered by Halverson on the gamba with theorbo accompaniment (I should mention here that the very presence and appearance of the theorbo, with its double-long black neck and diatonic bass strings, was the subject of excited conversation and discussion among the audience members). The modern harmonies of the Tartini (the newest piece on the program) were followed by a trio sonata by Bertali, from about the same time and in a similar vein to the Buxtehude.
Closing the first half was a less-familiar work by Bach, the sonata for violin and continuo in G, a relatively brief piece that is not part of any of the composer’s canonical sets (e.g., the six sonatas for violin and harpsichord, the six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas). Here soloist Fouts had a luxuriant accompaniment of harpsichord, gamba and theorbo, each with a slightly different facet of the same continuo line, and at the same time functioning marvelously in tandem. Fouts displayed a sweet tone and admirable flexibility of rhythm, with passionate sighs in the third movement, leading to the fugue which closed the work.
After refreshments, the ensemble returned for an intense performance of the third sonata from Biber’s 1681 collection, this one in F, and with an affect that suggests some particularly manly activity, such as hunting or the martial arts. Biber’s writing provided the opportunity for some fiery passagework by Fouts, leading to concluding scales in thirty-second notes at a tempo that had the audience leaping to its feet to applaud.
Two folkish settings (a Piva “bagpipe” and Canarios) by Kapsberger provided theorbo-lovers with the moment they had been waiting for, a chance to appreciate the truly heavenly sound of the theorbo in a setting where the instrument took center stage, with the music expressively rendered by Pauley, partnered by the violin and gamba.
The evening concluded with a virtuoso violin sonata by Locatelli (Op. 6, No. 12), a work already moving toward the galant, with extravagant ornamentation in the opening adagio, with the too-modest Fouts joined by gamba, harpsichord and baroque guitar. Alas, there were no encores.
All in all, this was a world-class rendering of delectable music under the best possible circumstances, chamber music truly heard in the sort of chamber it was meant for, where even the softest notes of the theorbo could tell, and all the details of the virtuoso playing register. We have so few opportunities for such experiences that we owe a vote of thanks to the Music House for making this one possible here in North Carolina.