When Dieterich Buxtehude is by far the best-known composer on a concert program, you know you are in for a night of discoveries. The others surveyed by the historically informed performance ensemble Quicksilver at its Washington concert debut, on Sunday at Dumbarton Oaks, also worked at some point in Germany or Austria in the 17th century. Their names — Matthias Weckmann, Antonio Bertali, Johann Schmelzer, Johann Kaspar Kerll, Nicolaus a Kempis — are mostly found in the footnotes of music history textbooks.
These pieces for instruments, mainly sonatas, were meant to divert the ear, with several moods and tempos in succession over a concise single movement. This musical approach was called the “stylus phantasticus,” because miniature, intricate worlds can be contained in the 10-minute spans. A striking D minor sonata by Bertali featured an extended solo played elegantly by Dominic Teresi on the dulcian, the forerunner of the bassoon, capped off by a lengthy chaconne, a set of variations over a repeated pattern of bass notes. Schmelzer’s “Polnische Sackpfeifen” evoked folk fiddlers over the droned notes of Polish bagpipes, given a dancing rhythmic impetus by Charles Weaver on the baroque guitar.
The best selections, such as Kerll’s sonata for two violins, highlighted the virtuosity of the group’s talented violinists, Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, who both added showy and fluid embellishments to their paired lines. Harpsichordist Avi Stein, who provided inventive if sometimes understated continuo playing, had a fleet-fingered solo turn in Buxtehude’s G minor prelude, BuxWV 163.
As welcome as it all was from a historical point of view, a little of this music goes a long way, and with some of the less diverting pieces, one wished for greater diversity in the programming.
Downey is a freelance writer.