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Brave and beautiful Biber from Boston Baroque

Solo violinist Christina Day Martinson (shown performing last year) used four instruments, some with unusual tunings, on Sunday in Cambridge. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file 2011/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE - It’s not often you see a classical-music performer go through four instruments in a single concert. Which is not to say that, Sunday afternoon at Cambridge’s First Church, Congregational, Christina Day Martinson took to smashing her violin à la Pete Townshend. She was simply dealing with the unusual tuning demands of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s “Mystery Sonatas,’’ in a Boston Baroque concert that packed the hall.

“The Mystery Sonatas’’ are a mystery in more ways than one. The 1678 (even that date is a guess) manuscript of these 15 works for violin and continuo plus an unaccompanied-violin Passacaglia links them to the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, which relate the life of Christ, from Annunciation to Ascension. But they’re really more suites than sonatas, and dance suites at that. The presentation of Jesus in the temple is a chaconne with 12 variations, his scourging is a shy, delicate coupling of allemande and sarabande, and his crowning with thorns starts out as a lullaby before turning into a gigue. It’s as if Biber had been studying enigmatic paintings like Piero della Francesca’s “The Flagellation of Christ’’ and Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.’’


Then there’s the scordatura, or “mistuning,’’ of the violin. Only Sonata I and the Passacaglia have the standard tuning in fifths. The other pieces boast a variety of tunings that promote new resonances and make new double, triple, and even quadruple stops possible while increasing the difficulty of playing anything like an ordinary scale.

Still, Day Martinson, in Sonatas I-VIII plus X, didn’t just survive, she triumphed. While she played on one violin, the next would be getting tuned for her. Discreet but effective continuo support was provided by Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman on organ and harpsichord, Sarah Freiberg on Baroque cello, and Victor Coelho on theorbo. Bobbing up and down like a country fiddler, Day Martinson herself was sweeter and less high-strung (both in tone and in approach) than many in these sonatas, and she gave life to Biber’s ideas: the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth in II, the sad minuet of the nativity (Botticelli’s dancing angels?) in III, the rending of the veil of the temple during the crucifixion in X.


The date for Part 2 of the cycle has yet to be announced. Biber aficionados will be waiting with bated breath.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.