Baroque composers were creating insanely virtuosic violin music long before Paganini tried his hand at it.
Proving this point: Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who wowed a full house Thursday night in a "Baroque Conversations" performance with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall, featuring works for both violin and viola d'amore.
Pine, who directed from her instrument, played with an ensemble of 14 musicians, including some playing special Baroque instruments: the theorbo and the harpsichord (a striking teal-blue instrument that happened to match the soloist's dress!).
And Pine's instruments? The violin, of course, and also a 14-string viola d'amore and a Baroque bow. Seven of those strings on the d'amore are "resonating strings," which sit underneath and are tuned to the same notes as the playing strings. It's an unwieldy instrument, longer and considerably thicker than a violin - yet Pine handled it with ease in the two works she played on the d'amore, both concertos by Vivaldi.
Pine's style for Baroque music was something of a hybrid between "period" and "modern" performance practices. On the "period performance" side of things was her use of a Baroque bow and the articulations that stemmed from it, plus a style that made minimal use of vibrato. On the "modern" side, the group was tuned to a 440+ A (not the lower 415 tuning used by many period ensembles), with instruments complete with chin rests, modern necks and steel (not gut) strings.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is not a group that specializes in period performance, so I wasn't expecting "Baroqued" instruments; but I did find a conspicuous contrast between the articulations created by Pine's Baroque bow and those made by the ensemble with their modern bows, as expertly as these fine musicians wielded them.
Nonetheless, it was a top-notch group playing with satisfyingly good pitch and accuracy. That sense of ensemble was especially apparent in the relatively brief suite of dances by Johann Georg Pisendel, whom Pine called, "the greatest violinist in Germany at the time of Bach," whose unaccompanied violin works almost undoubtedly inspired Bach's. With Pine playing the violin and directing from the concertmaster seat, a sense of focus and control - as well as exuberance - shined through in an intricate piece that went through many rhythmic permutations and moods.
Pine stood center stage for the other three works, all featuring her as a soloist. Some of the most elegant musical moments of the evening came in the Andante movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in D minor for Viola D'Amore, which brought out the viola d'amore's unique range and reverberance, with big rolling chords across all seven strings. ("Septuple stops"?) The full resonance of this single instrument over the spare accompaniment of just a few instruments had me entranced, like a meditation that evokes still and peaceful waters that are nonetheless thrumming with life.
The virtuoso highlight of the evening was Pine's performance of Pietro Locatelli's Concerto No. 12 in D major for Violin, a piece that the composer called "The Harmonic Labyrinth," appending a warning to the first movement of the score: "easy to enter, difficult to leave." The piece is part of Locatelli's collection, "L'Arte del Violino," which Pine said contains what could be called "the original 24 Caprices," as each of the 12 concertos contains two solo "capriccios" within. "These are the shoulders upon which Paganini's 24 Caprices stand," Pine said, in introducing the piece.
In short, it seemed like an insanely difficult piece, but not without humor. The first solo "capriccio" within the work was a kind of four-string gymnastics routine, which seemed a lot more elaborate than Bach's E major Preludio. It put the melody on the bottom string, then the top, then in the middle, all in a wash of bariolage, the whole thing blowing into a whisper at the end, with Pine negotiating it with calm control and yet tremendous energy. Between bursts of virtuosity from the soloist are episodes from the orchestra that feature a kind of merry melody. There was plenty more technique to behold: insanely fast and high spiccato passages; bird calls; notes too fast to quantify; double stops, fingerboard scurries, comically rapid arpeggios...all ending in an insanely high harmonic. Pine escaped the labyrinth, landed a standing ovation. It was delightful.
As an encore, Pine played the calm and pulsing "Andante" from Bach's Sonata No. 2, all within the period-Baroque aesthetic of minimal vibrato and shifting, and decorated repeats.
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When I interviewed Rachel in 2015 about her viola d'amore recording, she said that "I am always most delighted to let people try (my viola d'amore); you need never hesitate to ask." So after the concert -- I did! She told me that one of her students, upon trying the instrument, described the sound as "refreshing"! I saw her point; if a mint fires all the taste buds, this instrument fires not only the sonic senses, but it rings through the entire body, with its incredibly full resonance. I tried bowing across the open strings in one big rainbow swipe, in an attempt to play a full chord. Then Rachel had to inform me, "actually you are missing the top string!" I managed to hit six strings, but the seventh is at a new angle that my bow arm was not computing! As for how to navigate the fingerboard, that would be an entirely new calculus, but it did offer the promise of some exciting new double stops (and triple, quadruple, etc., etc.!). If you are curious, here is how the strings are tuned, top to bottom: "D," (one whole-step lower a violin E); "A" (just like open A); "F#" or "F natural"; "D" (same as an open D); "A" (a step above a violin G string); "D" (a step above a viola C string); and "A" (one third lower than the lowest string of a viola).
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