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The Boston Globe


Music Review

A retuned violin, holding a mirror to prayer

CAMBRIDGE — Every concertgoer knows the curiously comforting sound of string instruments tuning up before a concert, the hall abuzz with the sound of perfect fifths. But for anyone casually dropping in a few minutes late to the Boston Baroque chamber performance on Friday evening at First Church, something might have seemed amiss. The violinist Christina Day Martinson stood in front of the seated audience, wrestling her violin into a strangely contorted tuning, the lowest string ratcheted up perilously high, from its normal G to a C, with its neighboring D string lifted to an E. It might have seemed like preparation for an evening of experimental contemporary music, but in fact, the sonatas soon to fill the church were written by a composer — Heinrich Biber — born in 1644.

Biber’s set of “Mystery” Sonatas — sometimes called the “Rosary” Sonatas — in fact contain some of the most audacious experimentation ever conceived in scordatura, or altered tuning, as the strings of the violin are retuned for each of the 15 works in this cycle, in the process continuously altering the violin’s resonance, the relative brilliance of its sound, and its world of chordal possibilities.

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