The Quodlibet Ensemble showed the other night how much fun it can be to mix interesting music from widely different eras. The string group’s hourlong concert at the Baryshnikov Arts Center leaped from the zany Baroque to a 21st century work inspired by J.S. Bach, all played beautifully with vigor and virtuosity.
The evening began with the Battaglia suite by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Each short piece in this collection from 1673 illustrates a different scene from a battle, but Biber goes beyond the ordinary. It’s no surprise to find a march in a battle suite, for example. But Biber calls for a piece of paper to be held against the strings as the low-end player (in this case the bass viol) whacks them with the bow. The resulting alarming rattle suggests the noises of the battlefield.
Other vignettes include slides, foot stomps, and percussive effects. In one piece each instrument plays a different folk/drinking song, producing a couple of minutes of hilarious cacophony. Elsewhere Biber plays it straight. An “Aria” features lovely spectral harmonies. A “Lament of the Wounded Musketeers” is expressively sad, almost funereal.
We were reminded that there are many ways to surprise people. Vladimir Martynov surprised audiences with his unabashedly sentimental 1988 work Come In!. Though it contains neoclassical elements and hints of minimalism, this lush piece built partly on simple major scales is Romantic through and through. The ensemble’s eight violins, four violas, two cellos, one bass, and keyboard filled the hall with vibrant harmonies and melodies, beautifully constructed without cliché.
Soloist Katie Hyun was marvelous, bowing the melodies in the best Romantic tradition. At times she made me think of the passionate sweep of Heifetz; at other times of the precisely tempered musicality of Joshua Bell. She maintained a limpid tone throughout her range; her upper register mingling with the celesta’s high notes evoked faery magic.
From top to bottom the piece came across with total seriousness and honesty; Martynov seems to want not a hint of irony. Darker harmonies marked one section toward the end. By that time, though, I’d begun to tire of the sameness of mood. The beautiful music just kept going, and eventually it started to give me anxiety, as if I were listening to a unending song sung by a severely autistic person.
The Capriccio for Four Violins, Strings, and Harpsichord by Yevgeniy Sharlat is an exciting waker-upper. Taking Bach’s English Suite No. 2 as a starting point, Sharlat engineers energetic rhythmic surprises, ear-catching counterpoint, and busy, angsty drama. The piece builds toward howls and screams, a furious jig, and some keening dissonance among the four lead violins. A couple of sections feel like traditional fiddle dances split into multiple colors by a prism. The composer makes use of Bach’s themes and classical compositional techniques to create a prismatic work of accessible modernism.
Though designated “for Four Violins,” Sharlat’s bracing Capriccio provides plenty of opportunity for all the strings to be featured. These fine musicians gelled throughout the concert. Together as the Quodlibet Ensemble they are sinewy, effervescent, serious, glossily entertaining.