fb-pixelA violinist’s sublime pilgrimage through Biber mysteries - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Music Review

A violinist’s sublime pilgrimage through Biber mysteries

Boston Baroque concertmaster Christina Day Martinson performed Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s full “Mystery” Sonatas at Jordan Hall.Kathy Wittman

A sublime musical pilgrimage played out onstage at Jordan Hall Friday night, as Boston Baroque concertmaster Christina Day Martinson performed Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s full “Mystery” Sonatas. In each of the 15 brief sonatas, each representing a different station of the rosary, the soloist plays a violin in a different scordatura, or “mistuning,” accompanied by continuo. The cycle lasts more than two hours, finishing with a challenging Passacaglia for violin alone. Remarkable technical skill, mental flexibility, physical endurance, and spiritual fortitude are necessary to perform this equally cerebral and visceral work, and Martinson’s presence and prowess astounded more and more by the minute.

Martinson has been studying this Baroque avant-garde work for more than a decade, and she performed sections in Boston in 2012 and 2013. Her approach was more earthy than celestial, with sensuality in her lean, agile lines. A jaunty Gigue sighed into a luxuriant Sarabande, and the variations of a Chaconne representing the infant Jesus’s presentation in the Temple ranged from loose and relaxed to percussive and wild. The plangent sixth sonata, “Agony in the Garden,” cried out in long wails and short sobs. “The Scourging of Jesus” alternated lashing stops with long groans on the lowest string, which here sounded tense and raw from being tuned a fourth higher than usual.


Penetrating, grounded accompaniment came from the continuo section of three, which included Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman on harpsichord and organ. Boston Baroque violinist Julia McKenzie served as violin assistant, tuning each instrument backstage and bringing them out to Martinson one by one. One violin was reserved for the tuning with the most extreme tension so its strings would be less likely to break when adjusted, and yet another was exclusively for the “Resurrection” sonata, No. 11 in the cycle, which calls for the two middle strings to cross each other below the bridge and above the top of the neck.

Rapturous expressions from that cross-strung violin rippled over a drone from the organ and baroque cello, and the closely tuned violin that was next handed to Martinson imitated a triumphant trumpet in its color. The violin soared over a pulsing ground bass in the penultimate sonata, marking the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven. That luminous dance faded out slowly, as a balloon fades from sight in the sky, leaving the continuo section to finish on its own.


The evening’s final moments belonged to Martinson alone. The stage lights were tinted blue for the lonely Passacaglia, its descending four-note phrase providing both a foundation for harmonies and a launching pad for virtuosic runs. Time stretched out with each repeat. It seemed an eternity since we had embarked on this journey together, yet I sensed that if it continued, we all would have followed her anywhere.


At Jordan Hall, Friday night

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.