By Laurence Vittes
Canadian violinist Christina Day Martinson serves as concertmaster for Boston Baroque and as associate concertmaster for the Handel and Haydn Society. For a virtuoso in that milieu the ultimate challenge must be either Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin or Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s 16 Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo.
Biber’s set was written around 1676, half a century before Bach’s, but were not published until 1905 because the original manuscript was rediscovered in 1890.
Dedicated to the Archbishop of Salzburg, each of Biber’s sonatas suggests meditations on 15 mysteries from the lives of Jesus and his mother, with a concluding Passacaglia for solo violin.
The music was not only obscure, it was of a fiendish difficulty that would have tested Paganini. Its two hours abounds in outrageous multi-string chordal propositions like so many musical glottal stops—most of them requiring a variety of scordatura mistunings.
Appropriately enough, Martinson’s new recording for the Linn label with three Boston Baroque colleagues—Pearlman on organ and harpsichord, Michael Unterman on cello, Michael Leopold on theorbo and guitar—recalls the first ever recording of the Biber cycle; it was in made on Cambridge Records and the violinist was another woman, Sonya Monosoff. In fact, more than half of the nearly 20 recordings since then have been by women, and the most recent Martinson’s recording.
Martinson was in Boston when I caught up with her by email.
I’ve heard many recordings of the Biber. Yours has a special intensity. Does it mirror your own personal intensity in any way?
When I performed and recorded the Mystery Sonatas last year I was going through a difficult time in my life. Because of my own challenges at the time I could experience the pain and suffering of the story in a more direct and poignant way. Regardless of one’s own spiritual beliefs I think we can all relate to the human suffering and agony of this story. To play all the sonatas in one evening is both a musical and a spiritual journey.
Do you use different instruments for each sonata in live performances?
I use five to six different Baroque violins with gut strings for live performances: One only for Sonata No. 11, where strings are crossed, and one for No. 8 where the G string is tuned up a 5th. I divide the other four instruments between the other 12 sonatas. I keep the tunings as close as possible for each sonata. For example: Violin 1 is for 1, 4, 10, 14, and the Passacaglia. Violin 2 is for 3, 7, 9, and 12. Violin 3 is for 2 and 5. Violin 4 for 6,13, and 15.
You must have a battery of assistants backstage, frantically tuning violins.
To enable the performance to flow, I need a tuner backstage who comes out after each sonata and hands me the next violin. She takes the violin I just played and tunes it for the next sonata. And that person is my assistant Julia McKenzie who has worked with me on every performance—and on the recording. She is a wonderful violinist herself and has played such an integral part in this whole process. I always feel confident knowing she is there taking care of it all.
Amazingly I have never broken a string in performance, and Julia has never brought me the wrong violin—now I have to knock on wood!
Can the experience be approximated on a regularly tuned violin?
With his dramatic scordatura tuning, Biber found a way to create sound worlds that were unique to each sonata. The violins resonate differently because of the tunings and different tensions of the strings. These colors cannot be replicated on a regularly tuned violin. This is what makes these sonatas exceptional but also challenging. These “mistunings” create a host of difficulties and mind games—or puzzles—for the performer. And because of these unorthodox demands, many of the traditional rules and ways of approaching the violin have to be “thrown out the window.”
Is the Biber cycle equivalent in some way to the Bach solo Sonatas?
For me, the Bach Sonatas are really not parallel to the Mystery Sonatas. They are two great, huge works in two different worlds and there just is nothing else to this day like the Mystery Sonatas in the repertoire. No one came close to this kind of experimenting with scordatura.
Do you think of these as specific programatic fantasies, or pathways to inner religious feelings aroused by contemplation of the Mysteries?
The programmatic element of these pieces is ambiguous and at times confusing. Playing the cycle you really feel the drama and events in the story, but if you look at each sonata individually, some of them are puzzling in how the title and story event match the affect of the music.
For example, “Scourging at the Pillar” (No. 7) and “Crowning with Thorns” (No. 8) are both very upbeat and joyous sonatas. They are both in major keys and there is not an obvious sorrowful affect in either sonata. But in other sonatas the programmatic elements are more obvious. I do think the religious, contemplative side of these sonatas brings the performer and listener into a meditative state of being. There is a kind of transformation that is experienced when one enters into this two-hour journey.
It is all too easy of course to focus on these innovative and extraordinary compositional aspects of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas when we think of this work. I find, however, that the music itself is what is most captivating: visceral, and full of drama and expressive power.