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Matthews and Schenkman make dazzling duo 

****1/2
click to enlarge Ingrid Matthews and Byron Schenkman - LEE TALNER
  • Ingrid Matthews and Byron Schenkman
  • Lee Talner

In contrast to the full complement of Seattle Baroque players on Friday, Sunday evening saw the return of their two co-founders, a concert better revealing the musical gifts of these early-music performers. Violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman explored in depth the fancies of 17th-century instrumental music, a century which also saw the beginning of opera.

Pieces by John Playford (1623-1687), Heinrich von Biber (1644-1704), Johann Schmelzer (1623-1680), Johann Schop (1590-1647) and Thomas Baltzar (1631-1663) featured both players in what-are-called "ground bass" duos. Meaning the bass line moves in a repeated, limited-harmonic fashion while the treble line is the consistent variable, offering melodic adornments which vary unpredictably and continuously all over the place. By contrast, from the 18th century to the 20th it was the bass line which modulated harmonically underneath a repeating top melodic line with bridge passages in between. It is the latter form which most music lovers best identify with.

The five solo pieces, one for violin and four for keyboard, showed both performers' consummate mastery of the style and of their instruments. In particular, the Toccata I and Passacaglia for keyboard by Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693) as rendered on an Indy-built harpsichord by Schenkman saw his unassuming skill in negotiating intricate passage material, with trills, mordents and scale runs easily blending into the mix. This was some of the best harpsichord playing I've heard in the Early Music series.

In like manner, Matthews showed a superior ability in handling equally demanding material throughout the concert from that of her Friday appearance. Whether playing solo or as part of the duo, she gave us top-flight Baroque violin work. It must also be said that Matthews' winsome smile certainly did not detract from the proceedings.

During the pre-concert lecture, Schenkman pointed out that his harpsichord was tuned in "1/4 comma meantone temperament" as opposed to 12-tone equal temperament, which has ruled the Western-music world for a century and a half. In addition all pitches were tuned down a half step from A-440 to A-415 -- more commonly used in that century. For those interested in historic temperaments of fixed-pitch instruments (i.e. keyboards and fretted strings), yours truly posted a website some years ago, discussing the historic issues of tuning to create the most consonant harmonies, and how no one solution is free of pitfalls. Be warned, however: Many will probably find this treatise to be a crashing bore. June 24; Indiana History Center

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