Boston Baroque/Christina Day Martinson/Martin Pearlman: The Mystery Sonatas (Linn)
Boston Baroque was the first period instrument orchestra in the United States. The concertmaster is Christina Day Martinson, and its founder and artistic director is Martin Pearlman. Recently, they offered the inside story behind their latest recording, featuring the 'Mystery Sonatas' of a 17th century Bohemian composer.
You're celebrating a pretty phenomenal composer who was also a violinist on your latest project, The Mystery Sonatas, by Heinrich Franz von Biber. What are those mystery sonatas?
Pearlman: It's a set of 15 sonatas. Each represent one of the mysteries of the rosary, which Biber's employer, the archbishop, was very involved with. And each one has an engraving next to it in the score that shows a scene from that particular episode in the life of either Jesus or Mary. It's a very emotional, moving experience.
Why are these so rare?
Pearlman: Partly because they're extremely difficult. They make tremendous demands both on the player and the instrument itself. Biber, as you said, was a virtuoso violinist, but he also did a lot of experimenting. Every one of these 15 sonatas has the open strings tuned to a different set of notes. And so you have to just adapt and change your thinking for each sonata. It's very difficult to play them in tune, plus it's virtuosic music in its own right.
What is most challenging for you other than trying to keep your instrument in tune?
Martinson: The challenges of the mystery sonata, both mentally and physically, are extreme. And I was most concerned, I have to say, with playing all of them in their entirety with physical stamina. So, I focused a lot on getting myself in shape and doing a lot of physical exercise to strengthen myself to have the stamina for this three-hour concert.
Pearlman: When she's reading the notes, they are different notes to read from what is sounding because he writes it as if you're putting your fingers in the normal places, but because the strings are untuned, different notes are coming out. So you have to make that shift for each sonata and get used to kind of turning off one part of your brain and turning on another.
Martinson: And I think for me what was most profound and revelatory about playing this work in its entirety was that it became for me a spiritual journey, a kind of timeless musical pilgrimage.
Martinson: And if I may add that number 11, you know, is always focused on, but for good reasons. Where the violin has the two middle strings cross, the A and the D strings. So behind the bridge and the peg box there is a cross, and I have to say that that is by far the most challenging one, at least for me.
Pearlman: That sonata, number 11, is called 'The Resurrection.' And because of that, he wanted you to literally see a cross on the violin. And so, he crosses over those two strings, and a violinist's instincts of having the thicker strings on the bottom and gradually thinner strings as you go higher are reversed. Pearlman: I also felt that, beyond the depiction of the mysteries, we're kind of confronting Biber as a person. We don't know a lot of details about his life, but you just felt this incredible personality in this music, and you felt like you were involved with him, not only with the story. You don't get that with every composer.
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
ResourcesBoston Baroque (official site)
Biber: The Mystery Sonatas (Amazon)