Through two centuries after its invention (about 1525), the violin belonged to Italy, as a specialty if not quite a monopoly. Violin-making reached its pinnacle in the shops of Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari; violin-playing and composition matured in the hands of such masters as Corelli and Tartini, whose influence can be traced through the generations in unbroken lines of transmission -- master to apprentice -- that are still alive today. Brilliant technical display and a special affection for the art of song, an affinity for the phrasing and intonations of the human voice, were the most attractive qualities of these player-composers. And in the magnificent instruments of Cremona they found their ideal medium.

Last night's concert by the Smithsonian Chamber Players in the Hall of Musical Instruments (to be repeated at 8 tonight) recaptured the flavor of that exuberant period superbly. In the hands of Jaap Schroeder and Marilyn McDonald, violins of the period, in their original condition, sang the youthful joy of an instrument still near the beginning of its history, with possibilities still being explored and exciting discoveries still being made.

The best-known music came in the second half, with both violinists coordinating their phrases perfectly in an eloquent trio sonata by Corelli and again in Vivaldi's dazzling variations on the ancient Spanish melody "La Folia." Between these fine samples of ensemble playing (with imaginative participation by cellist Kenneth Slowik and harpsichordist James Weaver), McDonald took the solo spotlight in a gutsy, adventurous interpretation of Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata -- a virtuoso work, but one that was played with great emotional warmth.

The first-half of the program, equally interesting to connoisseurs, was devoted to less familiar but fascinating composers: Antonio Bertali, Marco Uccellini and Francesco Maria Veracini. Among these, it was particularly gratifying to hear a sonata by Isabella Leonarda, a composer doubly neglected for centuries because she was a woman.