Even to serious classical music fans, the names aren’t familiar: William Brade, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Philip von Wichel. But one of the joys of an Early Music Now concert is to be freed from any sort of “greatest hits” familiarity that our ears naturally seek out. Saturday night, in the second of two different programs, Quicksilver presented a program called “The Invention of Chamber Music: The Early Modern String Quartet.” The title has a slightly academic ring to it—the concerts were linked, in fact, to the national American Musicological Society conference that was held in Milwaukee over the weekend.
But there was nothing bloodless or esoteric about the music. Presented in mostly chronological order–ranging from the late 16th century to the end of the 17th century–the pieces demonstrated variety in both structure and sound.
Part of the appeal of music from this era is the spirit of freedom and formal experimentation. The idea of the program was to suggest the trajectory of music as it ceased to be solely for dancing or worship and became music for its own sake. Freed of those expectations, composers could play with abrupt changes in meter and rhythm from section to section. Or–not yet bound by the rules of the sonata form that emerged in the 18th century–composers like William Lawes could spin out one rhapsodic melody after another, as he does in the “Pavan” from his “Set a 5 in C minor.” Dieterich Buxtehude’s “Praeludium in G minor,” played brilliantly here by harpsichordist Avi Stein.
For variations in form, pieces often altered rapid sections of counterpoint with adagios that showed off the beauty of the Quicksilver ensemble, usually consisting of a pair of violins and violas, a single cello, plus harpsichord and lute. Violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski are among the most respected early music string players in the world, and it was easy to hear why. But what made the evening special was the sense of ensemble, the way the instruments blended beautifully and seemed to breath as a single organism. Even in the music with the most free, rubato tempos—such as the adagios in Johann Rosenmuller’s F-Major sonata–the ensemble held together with a rich, singular sound.