The first thing you'll notice when you talk with violinist Rachel Barton Pine is her endless energy. "I've never had caffeine in my life, so I guess it's just excitement and enthusiasm about the great music that I'm so lucky to surround myself," she jumps in to explain. In fact, Rachel has so many musical projects in the works and travels so frequently, she often has to check her own website to see what she's supposed to be doing next. One of her not-so-guilty pleasures is plugging into her Flying V six violin and turning up the volume to 11 with her heavy metal band, Earthen Grave. She's also a concert soloist, a recitalist, and she performs regularly with Trio Settecento, the Baroque chamber ensemble she formed in 1997. They've has just released their third recording, "A French Soiree."
Barton Pine says her musical curiosity stems from her childhood. She was home-schooled, which gave her breathing room to follow her own interests whether it was math, human evolution or music. "I think I've carried that with me into my musical life, where I'm just constantly researching different musical styles, reading about composers, reading about performance practice from various times and places. I just sort of grew up being able to explore wherever my fancy took me, and I've never stopped." With Trio Settecento she's explored Italian, German, and now French Baroque music. "The French album is music from Paris and Versailles from the 1700's," she explains, "Great composers like Rameau, Leclair, Marais, Lully, Couperin — played by me on baroque violin, John Mark Rosendaal on seven-string viola da gamba and David Schrader on double-manual harpsichord." Rachel plays an unaltered 1770 Niccolo Galliano violin. By playing a period instrument she's able bring out certain colors that might be lost on a modern instrument. According to Barton Pine, it was a challenge to get used to the pitch reference used in Baroque music, which is often a half step lower than what we're used to today, "It really does give the music a whole different flavor," she explains. "Different moods and characters. I was really surprised by what a huge impact playing at that low, low pitch made. It was quite a job to get used to it, because I unfortunately have perfect pitch, and so I was getting totally confused by what the notes were for a while when I was getting used to 392 (hertz)."
"A French Soiree" opens with a Divertissement made up of various movements by three of the greatest musicians who worked for Louis XIV. "We selected a variety of movements, many of our favorites, and put them together as a suite in the kind of way that it would have been done back then, when they were doing their chamber music soirees," Barton Pine explains. One of those movements puts the viola da gamba front and center — Marin Marais's "La Guitare." "That's a piece where the viola da gamba imitates the guitar," Rachel clarifies, "which is very appropriate seeing as how the viola da gamba is not the ancestor of the cello as many people erroneously think. [The viol family] is in fact a family of instruments, of multiple sizes, as is the violin family. They were invented at the same time, at the very end of the 1400's, and while they are cousins, the viola da gamba, its ancestors are really the plucked string instruments like the lute and the guitar. The viola da gamba has frets, it's tuned in fourths and thirds, and while it's played with a bow, it definitely has a spirit that is very close to the guitar, so Marais's piece makes total sense."
In 18th century France, it was Marais's mentor Sainte-Colombe who added the seventh string to the viola da gamba, giving the instrument additional depth and color. Jean-Fery Rebel exploits these characteristics in his Sonata in d minor, a dramatic prelude that captures Rebel's flair for the dramatic, "And it just gives you those extra low notes that widen the expressive range of the instrument," Barton Pine says, "and for the violin to then play along with that, it's like having a whole opera played by just three people."
Jean-Philippe Rameau creates sound pictures in his Concerto No. 4. In the final movement you can almost see the busy Rameau household, all fiddling away at their instruments, Barton Pine explains. And, she likes how this piece offers different textures. "The Rameau is the only one where the keyboard player has really the primary part and both hands are written out," she says, "rather than just having the left-hand bass line and then a bunch of chord numbers for the player to fill out with the right hand. It's a fully realized keyboard part and the violin and viola da gamba really just provide sort of backup enhancement to what the keyboard player is doing. So that's really fun to get to accompany the great David Schrader on that piece."
Rachel Barton Pine is putting her energy reserves to good use. In addition to this new CD, "A French Soiree," she and Trio Settecento have already laid down tracks for their next recording, 'An English Fancy,' due out next year. At home, she has a soundproof practice room, so that she can even practice at 3 a.m. without disturbing her family — a family that now includes a four-month-old daughter. She'll also be coming out with more concerto albums, more recital albums, and she'll record Paganini's 24 Caprices. "I have probably a lifetime's worth of project ideas," she enthuses, "and it's just a question of which one do I do next and which one do I do after that."