Music Before 1800 Gets Radical

by delarue

One of the great things about Music Before 1800‘s programming is that it’s not just standard repertoire. Sure, a lot of baroque and early chamber music sounds quaint to us today since it wasn’t written to be anything more than a backdrop for courtly dancing or whatever else the dictators or petty dictators who commissioned it were up to. But a lot of it has as much resonance now as it did then. Last night at the Kosciusko Foundation, violinist Lina Tur Bonet and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss took paradigm shifts from the early 1700s and brought them to life with equal parts adrenaline and meticulousness.

The program was titled “La Petite Merveille and the Red Priest.,” the latter referring to Vivaldi, two of whose dynamic, so-called Graz Sonatas moved seamlessly through graceful, balletesque leaps to gritty, rapidfire riffage, Weiss providing a steady, purposeful safety net beneath Bonet’s charges through volleys of sixteenth notes and biting minor-key cadenzas.

As exciting as all that was, the pieces de resistance were two similarly dynamic works by pioneering French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was given her marvelous little nickname by Louis XIV. Beyond the challenge of being a woman composer of concert music in a field that was a a thousand times more of a boys’ club then than it is today, she singlehandedly introduced the Italian sonata form and its virtuoso playing to French court music, and in the process transformed it. That it took such an outsider to pull off that feat has many implications for royalty of the era.

The duo first played her Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, possibly dating from as early as 1695. From its plaintive, moody adagio introduction, throgh fascinatingly fugal, waltzing counterpoint, a handful of strikingly rapidfire passages for Bonet to relish, and a bitingly edgy coda, it was a radical piece of music for its era. There was somewhat less bite but no less innovation in the alternatively wistful, pensive and eventually triumphant variations in Jacquet’s Sonata No. 4 in G Major, which the two performed after a voluptuous yet precisely considered Weiss interpretation of Louis Marchand’s Suite in D Minor for solo harpsichord.

Weiss also put a close spotlight on the intricacies and playful japes in a quartet of solo harpsichord sonatas by Scarlatti. It’s one thing to multitask with this kind of music in the background: up close in concert, it was impossible not to be surprised and tickled by the composer’s occasional use of modern-sounding close harmonies, or the irrepressible humor that bubbled throughout Sonata K. 56. The duo encored with a brief Bach piece that sent the crowd downstairs to the after-show reception with a pre-party nocturnal glimmer.

In addition to their pretty-much-monthly series of concerts by top-tier choral ensembles, Music Before 1800 sometimes features rare treasures and familiar favorites from the chamber repertoire. Their next concert at the Kosciusko Foundation is on March 3 at 7 PM, featuring rising star Beiliang Zhu playing all six Bach Suites for Solo Cello.