Friday, February 1, 2013

The silvery tones of Quicksilver

Quicksilver in action at an earlier concert.

Sometimes you can feel it in the air, that sense of a collective "Wow."  It was certainly all but palpable at the Quicksilver concert from the Boston Early Music Festival last Saturday night.

Wow.  Just - wow.

I'd already heard the buzz from their last performance at BEMF - a late-night jam session that left people dazzled, maybe even dazed.  The same happy vibe hummed through the chatter at intermission last weekend - "Can you believe it?" "Oh. My. God!" The partner unit and I were similarly punch-drunk.  "So," I said drily, "how good are they, would you say?"  He thought for a moment.  "They're f--king incredible," he replied.

Indeed and verily.  Pardon my French, of course - and I don't expect to see "F--king incredible! - The Hub Review" on Quicksilver ad copy anytime soon.  But you get the point.  It almost doesn't matter what these people are playing - each member of Quicksilver is so virtuosic, and their ensemble is so tight, attentive and sympathetic, that they could probably make you swoon over "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat."

On the other hand, perhaps it helped that almost everything they played was obscure, but also thrillingly beautiful.  (Yes, that usually helps.) Quicksilver seems devoted to exploring the very beginnings of what lead violinist Robert Mealy calls "abstract music" - that is, music sans religious or political pretext, or indeed text of any kind; music that obeys only its own rules.  

Specifically, Mealy and Co. focus on the earliest forms of the sonata, whose rules were made up in the 17th century - and last Saturday they zeroed in on composers in Germany.  What they revealed was a gorgeous kind of chaos, united by a ravishingly mournful tone that can only be described as silvery (hence, perhaps, their moniker?).  These sonatas, from the likes of all-but-forgotten names like Kerll and Vierdanck, literally leapt from effect to effect, voice to voice, and stance to stance. Bustling turns on the dulcian by the virtuosic Dominic Teresi powered the opening number from Matthias Weckmann; something close to a muezzin's call echoed through the Bertali sonata that followed; and then bagpipes (believe it or not) suddenly - and hilariously - marched through Johann Schmelzer's Polnische Sackpfeiffen.  Sometimes in this concert you felt as if you'd bought a ticket to some sort of musical ark.

To be honest, this stuff makes for a wonderful showcase for performers, but its constant variety, and the lack of any over-arching structures, perhaps wore a bit thin by the end of the evening.  It was wonderful, for instance, to hear keyboardist Avi Stein give the glorious organ of the First Congregational Church a full work-out, but Nicolaus Bruhns' Praeludium turned out to be all sudden surprises, starts and stops.  Still, even late in the program there were wonders to take in, such as the stunning face-off between Mealy and violinist Julie Andrijeski (joint directors of Quicksilver) in a fierce little sonata from Johann Kaspar Kerll.  And I have to mention the seductive touch of Charles Weaver on the theorbo, which is probably the most softly sensual stringed instrument in existence. (Again - wow.) Still, the star of the evening was clearly violinist Mealy.  I admit he himself obviously agreed with that assessment, but if he served his solos with a small side of ham, where's the harm?  His sound is nothing less than heart-breaking, his interpretive thrust consistently of the highest order - and clearly he's aware he's only first among equals.  Together this stunning consort seems to be raising the bar for early music without even trying; certainly at the very dawn of the local season they have already essayed one of its most memorable concerts.

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