Media Room

An Interview with Music Director Martin Pearlman and Brittany Ross from Boston Baroque on the release of the recording of the Biber Mystery Sonatas

April 27, 2018

photo by Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

BR: You’ve mentored Christina (Day Martinson) since she studied at Boston University in the Historical Performance Program. Now that you have collaborated with her as concertmaster and in this recording, how has your relationship grown over the years and how has she evolved as a performer?

MP: Christina was an extraordinary student when she came to BU. She hadn’t studied Baroque violin yet, but she was an advanced violinist and had an instinct for this music. Aside from her actual violin lessons it was just a matter of giving her opportunities to play and experiment. She discovered music she was interested in, not necessarily the Mystery sonatas at first, but other Biber sonatas and other composers of that time. We were able to give her a chance to play concertos with the Baroque orchestra at school and provide other opportunities. Not that long afterward, I hired her to play in Boston Baroque professionally. She started out as one of the violinists in the section but quickly moved up, since I saw tremendous potential. I also saw her as a sympathetic musical spirit, someone that I felt in tune with musically, and gradually I was able to move her up to concertmaster, where she has made a real change in the sound of the string section.  She has played a lot of solo music with us, including recording the Four Seasons and other pieces.

BR:  How important or influential was religion to Biber’s composing? Do you see influences from religion in other areas of his secular works?

MP: I think that in music from that time or any time, the influences go both ways. You get secular influences in religious music and vice versa. Biber wrote a lot of both types. The Mystery Sonatas refer to the mysteries of the Rosary, but the sonatas don’t necessarily do it in an obvious way. They’re not simply depicting a story, but they leave each person to interpret them in his or her own way. Some people wonder why in the middle of tragic moments you might have a moment of dance or lighter music.  There’s no obvious answer to that in terms of the story, but there is an overall atmosphere that lets you reflect on the music. I’ve wondered at times whether a few of these sonatas may have been pre-existing music that he adapted to fit this series. Bach certainly did that with collections like the Well-Tempered Clavier. We do know that one of these sonatas, the Crucifixion Sonata (No.10), was used later as a secular piece to depict the siege of Vienna. As a set, the atmosphere of these sonatas is mesmerizing and makes a listener contemplate the mysteries.

BR:  Is there a sonata in the Mystery Sonatas that stands out to you and why? Do you have a favorite?

MP: The more we’ve done these sonatas as a set, the more they feel like a long journey and less like a collection of short individual sonatas. There are several of them that stand out to me, though. The Crucifixion Sonata (No. 10) is tense, exciting, and agitated, as you might expect, and it’s tremendously virtuosic. The Resurrection Sonata (No. 11) has a unique sound. It’s the one sonata that has two strings crossed over each other, so that you literally see a cross on the violin and hear an unusually sweet sound as it plays an Easter hymn. The sonata about the Assumption of the Virgin (No. 14) is a joyous one that feels almost like a folk dance. Just before the end, the violin surprisingly drops out and you only hear the bass line. Some people have suggested that it may be meant to depict the Virgin disappearing into heaven, leaving us below on earth with just the bass line. That’s a memorable piece as well.

BR: Are there orchestral/chamber works by Biber that you would like to conduct in the future? Or any plans for future seasons?

MP: We have done a few other pieces of his, including short choral works with instruments. Biber wrote a lot of choral works. I would be interested in doing one of his masses. There is also an enormous piece attributed to him for 53 voice parts, which would sound great in a cathedral where you can spread people around. That would be an interesting project!

BR:  How has your interpretation of the piece changed in terms of musical choices, number of violins, and continuo considerations made in the music from six years ago when you performed them in 2012 and 2013 and last year’s performance to the recording?

MP: What we do on the CD is pretty close to what we did in the concerts. Sometimes there are small changes in our instrumentation to create more variety.  You have choices as to the instruments you use to accompany the violin, because Biber only wrote a bass line and lets you choose which instruments to use on it.  The continuo instruments improvise on that bass line. The accompanying (continuo) instruments that we use are harpsichord alternating with organ, cello, and theorbo (large lute), although a few times we substitute a Baroque guitar for a more raucous sound. We use them in different combinations. In the opening sonata, we use only the organ with the violin, sometimes there’s just cello and harpsichord, sometimes all three players with the violin. The choice of organ or harpsichord for a sonata might depend on the character of the piece, whether you want a sustained quality or a brighter sound.

BR: You and Christina are performing for Houston Early Music at their end of the season concert, could you tell me more about that?

MP: There will be four of us going: Christina bringing 5 different violins, me on harpsichord and organ, Michael Unterman on cello, and Michael Leopold on theorbo and guitar. The sponsors in Houston were interested in this concert, because it’s such an unusual event, and they arranged for us to do it in Houston around the time of the release of the CD by our British company, Linn Records. Performing the complete Mystery Sonatas in one evening is a technical feat as well as a physical one, like a marathon for the violinist. It’s a crazy mind game, where she has to shift the way she reads the music and plays the violin for each sonata, in order to adapt to the different tunings in each sonata. Played all together the set is a huge, amazing event—sort of a Wagner Ring Cycle for a Baroque violinist.

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