As the performers explained, Vienna in the early 17th century was a great place for musicians, a hotbed of creativity and performance. In this, the court city of the Holy Roman Empire and its successive rulers, Ferdinand II, Ferdinand III, and Leopold I, not to mention later Habsburgs, Joseph I and Charles IV, much of the composition was in honor of an emperor and much of the performance was for his benefit and pleasure. This program at The Music House successfully sought to elicit the same excitement they would have known.
The Heartland Baroque players have a series of instruments from the usual to the delightfully historically informed. The two unusual instruments present in this concert were the curtal and the theorbo. The theorbo, a bass lute, in this case taller than its player by a foot or so, has ten strings. The curtal, similar to the bassoon, has a light and airy tone, sounding like nothing so much as a baritone kazoo with the most perfect intonation possibly imaginable. (In this case, the brilliantly precise intonation was the good work of performer C. Keith Collins.) The tuning of the theorbo was in this case equally precise through the good efforts of lutenist William Simms.
The program was a jewel box of delicate and unusually beautiful pieces, beginning with the Canzona Prima à tre of Massimiliano Neri. The second piece was J. J. Fux's Sonata à tre; the curtal had its own legitimate part, which also served as the bass line. The curtal was often doubled by the cello. The Sonata Sesta à tre of Johann Rosenmuller had more than the usual three movements; the third movement was especially brisk; the fourth movement gave Collins and his curtal a chance to speak undoubled by the cello. The music seemed to delight Krumdieck, who gave us something more than a hint of a smile in this movement.
In the Sonata à Due Violini (Giovanni Battista Buonamente), Simms switched from the theorbo to a Baroque guitar, an instrument which calls for a much more vigorous style of playing than the theorbo, with much more strumming and less plucking, although in Simms's realization of the figured bass he did choose some plucking to emphasize a few of the passages. In these pieces, in which the theorbo or guitar is playing the basso continuo, Simms had neither a tablature part nor a part written out in conventional notation; he (although rehearsed) was improvising, based on the single printed bass note and the required harmonies indicated by the figures. I never ceased to be amazed at how apt his choice of chords and flourishes was.
In Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonata à Due (namely Wilson, violin, and Collins, curtal), Collins and his instrument proved to be as spritely as the violin. The ensemble brought a strong and gentle competence to the piece, with its lines of triplets sparkling like flowing water. The phrases were usually introduced by the violin with what seemed like far too many notes to the inch for the curtal, and yet Collin's mastery erased any sense of doubt about his ability to follow the piece wherever it led him.
First after intermission was Gottfried Finger's Sonata à tre (Perry and Wilson, violins; Krumdieck, cello; Simms, continuo theorbo). This piece was in an open and sunny singing-and-dancing style completely different from the very intense and complicated pieces that preceded and followed it. It was brilliantly easy in the same way that Handel can be as moving as Bach, but using the simplest of elements rather than the most complicated. The second movement was full of delicious suspensions. In this piece the cello definitely came into its own as a solo voice, and Krumdieck never hesitated, making the most complicated passages seem like child's play.
The Sonata à Due Violini of Antonio Bertali was titled for two violins, and Perry and Wilson had several let's-go-crazy-now passages, handled with complete aplomb, over the more solemn continuo; that continuo, taken by Collins, Krumdieck, and Simms, was itself a masterpiece of perfect intonation, especially between the curtal and the cello.
In the Sonata Terza à due between the violin and the curtal (Rosenmuller again), there was a stumble, a stop, and a perfect do-over, hardly obvious as a problem, so forgiving is the intimacy of a small hall.
Joey O'Donnell joined the ensemble for Schmelzer's Lamento Sopra la Morte Ferdinand III. The concert concluded with Bertali's Sonata à tre for two Violini é Fagotto (curtal).
A pleasant evening was had by all, including Worm, Mr. Cello's usual traveling companion, who took everything in from atop the Steinway in the corner (joke, insiders, for the use of).