What better a way to start a Festival Music Society of Indiana sponsored season than with Johann Sebastian Bach? This titan of early music (indeed many say of all music) so eclipses his competitors for concert hearings that we must adjust our expectations when hearing works of his contemporaries. Though not touring extensively this season, the Seattle Baroque's eight performers were engaged on Friday by FMS artistic director Mark Çudek to launch the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, with featured violin soloist and Seattle Baroque co-founder Ingrid Matthews.
Matthews began with the second of Bach's two extant violin concertos, that in E Major, BWV 1042. She ended the program with his first one -- in A Minor, BWV 1041. In between, we heard earlier Baroque fare by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680), the redoubtable Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) and the virtually unknown Romanus Weichlein (1652-1706). Most of these were sonatas for violins, two violas and continuo.
However, Seattle Baroque enriched the continuo part -- usually taken by a solo harpsichord -- with a cello, a violone (a large, fretted string instrument, this one sized between a cello and a double bass) and a theorbo (the longest extant lute, with a giraffe-like neck). These supplemented the locally built harpsichord, well played by Byron Schenkman, adding a more harmonized underpinning to the upper strings.
Though all the non-Bach offerings were equally engaging, the Weichlein Sonata III from Encania Musices proved most arresting. Following its Introduction, fugue and passacaglia movements, it abruptly ends on a dominant chord (an A-chord rather than its D minor signature key). We were waiting for the tonic cadence, but we didn't get it.
Matthews played the Bach concertos mostly "white," that is: without vibrato, in keeping with those times. She handled the intricacies of Baroque passage work with ease, but occasionally was slightly off pitch, something evidently more obvious when bowing pure pitches. Instead of just string accompaniment and harpsichord, the group stayed with the cello, violone and theorbo, as well as including Schenkman, proving the old adage that Bach works on any instruments. June 22; Indiana History Center