The Baroque Weeks Begin!

Ada Pesch, concertmaster for the Philharmonia Zürich, is usually at work at the conductor’s left in the opera house. But for this “Baroque” week in Ernen, the American-born violinist wears the director’s hat. Baroque music is her passion, and her strength in that genre is given deserved visibility here. She also has responsibility for drawing up the roster of artists performing the Baroque repertoire, specialist colleagues who come from all over the world.

Ernen owes a great debt to Ada. From 1974, Hungarian pianist György Sebök instituted summer master courses in Ernen – the seedling for the festival today – but after his death in 1999, the future of what he had begun was uncertain. Ada wanted to see the continuation of the intimate setting and serious musical commitment that hallmarked the Ernen experience. And, she showed herself a demonstrative advocate for a new generation of musicians and public. Along with artistic director Francesco Walter, and from the working level, she encouraged opening the music concentration to one that embraced the other arts. Ada’s contacts with American crime novelist Donna Leon and National Book Award winner Richard Powers – whom she sought out around a concert she and Cecelia Bartoli gave in Urbana, Illinois – lead to a strong annual tradition in Ernen of short writing seminars.

At the Sunday concert, Ada showed her in much the same kind of inclusive role. J. S. Bach’s “Suite Imaginaire” – instrumental episodes selected from various others of Bach’s works and pieced together for solo instruments – was a delicate breath on which to start. While an unusual convention today, picking and choosing the “good bits” to play was common practice in the Baroque era. Catherine Jones’ sheer agility on the cello launched the evening; Mike Fentross’ theorbe (a novelty for many) was subdued, but its quiet expression a little like a single voice in the wilderness. By contrast, Ada Pesch’s violin stepped out with bravado; she took it to the far end of her instruments’ capabilities, her work entirely in keeping with the highly decorative Baroque altar behind the configuration. Siobhan Armstrong’s solo harp was a treat rarely experienced over such long cadences; Lawrence’ Cummings’ harpsichord impressed with its dizzying tempo.

In the evening’s second selection, the recorder (Benny Aghassi) rightly shone in Bach’s own arrangement for recorder, violin (Monika Baer) and basso continuo (Paolo Zuccheri). Originally composed as the Sonata for Organ in C-Major, no. 6, BVW 530, the woodwind introduced a whole palette of breathing and fingering techniques, showing it a highly versatile instrument – well suited in solo performance to the acoustic of the church.

The evening’s two works by the Austrian violinist and composer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, however, were my clear favorites. During both the “Sonata decima in A-Major for strings” and the superb “Arie con la mattacina” in D-major, the excellent violist, Deidre Dowling could be seen smiling infectiously in the sheer exuberance of the exercise. Ada Pesch truly gave the music purpose as she lead and played. Although Schmelzer’s name is largely unfamiliar to a general public today, one concert-goer in 1660 cited him as "nearly the most eminent violinist in all of Europe." As composer and musician, Schmelzer was in service to the great Hapsburg patron of the arts, Emperor Leopold I, who appointed him to the rank of Kapellmeister in 1679. Sadly, the composer was to succumb to a plague epidemic only months after getting the position. Our good fortune, then, that the Sunday concert in Ernen ended on far the merrier note.

Ernen, 20 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet