Maya Homburger (violin), Camerata Kilkenny
East Cork Early Music Festival
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1704-44) was a great virtuoso of the violin. As a composer, his best-known works are a set of violin sonatas, known as the Rosary or Mystery Sonatas, with each one named after a decade of the Rosary.
And in these works Biber created a range of highly distinctive sonorities through the use of the technique known as scordatura.
Scordatura involves re-tuning the strings of the violin, which both changes the resonant character of the instrument (it's the open strings which speak with greatest resonance) and also enables the sounding of otherwise impossible or impossibly awkward combinations of notes when chords are played through double-stopping.
The range of tunings involved is so elaborate as to require multiple instruments for concert performances, and, to the best of my knowledge, seven sonatas using four different violins is as many as baroque violinist Maya Homburger has ever dared undertake in a single programme. The music is rich in symbolic connections. Some stem from associations which are purely musical. Others greet the eye when the music is read - the Crucifixion Sonata opens with a motif that outlines a cross.
And there's even a major one with an altogether firmer physical reality.
For the Resurrection Sonata the middle strings of the violin are physically crossed at either end of the instrument (in the pegbox and beyond the bridge), and the combination of crossing and retuning also facilitates the playing of octaves in a manner that's unique in the literature of the violin.
All this background would, of course, be of little interest if the music was not of high quality.
Fortunately, Biber's musical inspiration was of a level to match the intricacy of his technical imagination. And the sonatas require a performer of exceptional gifts to speak with clarity and conviction to a modern audience.
Maya Homburger, who presented what must surely have been the first all-Biber programme in Ireland during Kilkenny Arts Week in 1998, repeated the feat at St John the Baptist Church in Midleton for the East Cork Early Music Festival on Thursday, to mark the 300th anniversary of the composer's death.
Homburger has a sure grasp of Biber's musical logic, an alert sensitivity to the extraordinary sound worlds he created, and she seems finely attuned to the deeper suggestiveness of the music, a suggestiveness which is, above all, what makes these pieces so treasurable.
Whether dealing with the overt lament which opens The Agony in the Garden, the sense of subterranean disturbance that's to be found later in that same sonata, or the many flashes of finger-blurring virtuosity that are littered throughout these works, her musicianship always seemed true, her communication free and open.
The accompanying continuo group, Siobhán Armstrong (double harp), Malcolm Proud (organ and harpsichord), and Sarah Cunningham (viola da gamba), rang the changes with imagination and matched the soloist in bringing these extraordinary works fully to life.
By Michael Dervan, Irish Times September 2004
"It is partly the subtle flexibilities of her rhythmic approach
that breathes life into these scores; one should also mention the beautiful
sound she gets from the violin, a sound which seems to bloom in the acoustic
of St. Ann's. In her hands the 'period instrument'
becomes the only one that allows the music to communicate fully."
Douglas Sealy, Irish Times 6 March 2001
"Her music was full of poetry and fantasy and came across as fluently
and as lightly as thought itself. Her playing of Biber's Passacaglia,
64 repetitions of a four-note descending bass line over which the music
spins out and elaborates itself like smoke, was filled with freedom, balance
Stephen Pedersen, Halifax Nov. 1999
"... The highlight for me in the Dublin musical calendar this year
were the two concerts of Bach solo violin music by Maya Homburger in St.
Ann's. And then, she played as an encore, a piece by Barry Guy.
She played it brilliantly, and she can do both things. That is the kind
of musician that is needed to complement the kind of impresario who has
a vision. If you put those two together, you are going to win."
"The instrument alone is powerless, but controlled by one for whom
it seems a natural extension of the voice, it translates the printed notes
into sounds that transcend their origins. You have to be a virtuoso to
perform this music, but if you have the soul of a virtuoso all is lost,
for then the music takes second place to display. Maya Homburger does
not interpose her personality between Bach and the listener, but strives
to convey all that the composer intended. We cannot know exactly what
that was, but I think the audience in St. Ann's church on Sunday
experienced this music to the full ... These works for solo violin have, in the performance we heard, a sense of the highest that can be seen
as an act of worship."
Douglas Sealy, Irish Times, Feb. 1999