Baroque music comprises a distant and mysterious world that modern performances, although often brilliant and persuasive, often fail to conjure up. Fortunately there are musicians such as violinist Monica Huggett who strive, by using period instruments and by respecting Baroque performance practices, to guide the listener through the hidden labyrinths of Baroque. This is a monumental task, since the original sources of Baroque playing technique are mostly academic treatises, which probably present an idealized picture of musical performance. The performer, therefore, often relies on intuition, and this has been Huggett's strength, for she captures the music's spirit, particularly in such challenging compositions as Heinrich Biber's Violin Sonatas (1681), and J. S. Bach's monumental Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.
Huggett's intuition had led her to performances that both experts and ordinary music lovers have found convincing. Critics may disagree with some of her stylistic approaches, but reviewers have consistently emphasized those qualities in her performance where stylistic quibbling is irrelevant: her warmly mellifluous tone and the passionate, refined eloquence of her phrasing. Furthermore, writers who object to her unorthodox tempos, particularly in her performances of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, need to remember that while clocks existed in Bach's time, metronomes did not, which means that perceptions of musical time were not informed by mechanical contraptions.
Huggett plays an 1618 Amati violin, which, interestingly, would have been regarded are archaic by Bach. Made by Antonio (c. 1538-c. 1595) and Girolamo (1561-1630), sons of Andrea, the patriarch of the illustrious Amati dynasty of violin-makers in Cremona, this instrument differs in significant ways from a modern violin and adds specific challenges for the performer. In general, an early seventeenth-century violin has a shorter and wider fingerboard, and the bridge is lower and less curved. The bow is somewhat arched, unlike modern bows which are concave. Finally, Huggett follows the early Baroque practice of using gut strings. It was not until the late seventeenth century that violin-makers started winding the lowest—or G—string with silver or copper wire; and gut strings completely disappeared only in the twentieth century.
In a conversation with Lindsay Kemp of Gramophone magazine, Huggett defined herself as "somebody who finds it very difficult to conform." A talented teenager, she was a violin student at the Royal Academy of Music, and was working with Manoug Parikian when she realized that she was yearning for a kind of expressiveness that the modern violin perhaps could not offer her. She was in search of a new, unexpected sonority, and she found it in the Baroque violin. As Hugget told Kemp, her teacher at the Royal Academy demanded a rather restrained interpretation of Bach, while she heard passion in Bach's music. For a violinist, switching to the Baroque violin can be a risky business, for audiences and recording labels still regard the modern violin as a standard. Fortunately, Huggett found a receptive and supportive atmosphere in Amsterdam, where she studied with Baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken. Another crucial influence was harpsichordist and conductor Ton Koopman. Huggett approached the Baroque repertoire with the zeal, concentration, and methodical consistency of a violinist unafraid of any repertoire. She performed all the great Baroque masters, including Vivaldi, Corelli, Leclair, and Handel. In addition to a brilliant technique, she brought her vivid imagination and soulful approach to the compositions she studied. By the 1970s Huggett was an established Baroque violinist. An interesting fact about many Baroque violinists, including Huggett, is that they refuse to close the door to later musical periods. Indeed, among Huggett's recordings one also finds works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.
From 1980 to 1987 Huggett led the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, finding time and energy in 1982 to found Trio Sonnerie, which also included harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson and bass violist Sarah Cunningham. After an acclaimed debut concert in London the ensemble expanded, eventually becoming one of Europe's premier Baroque ensembles. During her time with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Huggett also co-founded Hausmusik, a group specializing in Classical and early Romantic works. Also active as a teacher, Huggett became professor of Baroque violin at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen. In 1994 she was named a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music; the following year she joined the Portland Baroque Orchestra as its artistic director.
Bach's Suites and Partitas for solo violin are a monumental challenge for any violinist: the music is seemingly unattainable, the technical obstacles daunting. A Baroque violinist faces the additional challenge of interpreting works which have already been defined by the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, and who approach Bach as one of the greatest composers of all time. In adopting this idealistic view, such musicians have tended to forget that Bach in many ways expressed the ethos of the Baroque era, and that his genius could not be separated from the spirit of his times. As commentators have observed, in her recordings of Bach's works for solo violin Huggett attacked the technical demands with the perfectionist attitude of a modern player, while searching for the hidden sonorities, insights, and stylistic idiosyncrasies that would escape a player lacking a profound knowledge of the Baroque world view.
Huggett's performance reveals a soulful, emotional dimension of Bach's music, creatively contradicting the idea that Bach's music is essentially a cerebral construction. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Huggett turned her attention to Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), a great master of the Middle Baroque. Her recording of Biber's Sonatas for Solo Violin (1681) brought Huggett a Gramophone award in 2002. Praising Huggett's performance in Goldberg, Luis Gago concluded that Huggett's "chords are clean, clear, and her approach to the Passacaglia, with its steady ostinato, is flawless." Huggett's interpretation also captures the passionate spirituality and metaphysical depth of Biber's music. With her uncanny ability to create sonorities approaching the unique quality of the human voice, Huggett has beautifully illuminated these enigmatic works, placing them in the context of universal human concerns. In 2004 Huggett released a recording of Biber's Mystery Sonatas (also known as Rosary Sonatas), a profound musical expression of Baroque spirituality.
For the Record …
Born on May 16, 1953, in London, England. Education: Studied violin with Manoug Parikian at Royal Academy of Music, London; studied Baroque violin with Sigiswald Kuijken.
Performed with the English Concert; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, leader, 1980-87; founded Trio Sonnerie, 1982; Hausmusik, co-founder, 1987; Royal Academy of Music, Fellow, 1994–; Greate Consort, founder, 1995; Portland Baroque Orchestra, artistic director, 1995–; Hochschüle für Künste, Bremen, Germany, professor of Baroque violin; performed Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music worldwide; recorded on various labels including EMI, Harmonia Mundi, Virgin, Erato, and Decca; guest director of numerous ensembles, including Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Tafelmusik, and Ensemble Arion.
Awards: Gramophone magazine Editors' Choice award, December 1997, for J. S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin; Gramophone's Best Instrumental Recording Award, for Heinrich Biber's Violin Sonatas, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—EMI, 27 Wrights Lane, London W85SW, England.
(Jean-Marie Leclair) Sonatas for Violin, ASV, 1993.
(Johann Sebastian Bach) Violin Concertos, Elektra/Asylum, 1996.
(Antonio Vivaldi) Concertos, Decca, 1997.
(Johann Sebastian Bach) Sonatas and Partitas, Virgin, 1998.
(Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) Complete Violin Concertos, Virgin Classics, 1999.
(Antonio Vivaldi) La Cetra, op. 9, Virgin Classics, 1999.
(Biagio Marini) Curiose invenzioni, Stradivarius, 2000.
(Heinrich Biber) Sonatas 1681, ASV, 2002.
(Antonio Vivaldi) Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione (including "The Four Seasons"), Virgin Veritas, 2003.
(Heinrich Biber) Mystery Sonatas 1, 2004.
American Record Guide, July-August, 1998; May-June, 1999.
Fanfare, September-October, 1998.
Gramophone, January 1996.
"Heinrich Franz Von Biber," Goldberg, http://www.goldbergweb.com/en/discography/1999/5034.php (July 3, 2004).
Portland Baroque Orchestra, http://www.pbo.org/season2004reviews.htm (July 10, 2004)
Huggett, Monica, English violinist; b. London, May 16, 1953. She was a student of Manoug Parikian at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and also received training in early performance practice from Sigiswald Kuijken, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koop-man. With Koopman, she helped to found the Amsterdam Baroque Orch. in 1980, servingas its concertmaster until 1987. She also appeared as a soloist with various early music ensembles, as a recitalist, and as a chamber music player. She likewise served as director of the Greate Consort, Trio Sonnerie, and Hausmusik. In 1992 she made her first appearance with the Portland (Ore.) Baroque Orch., and in 1996 she became its artistic director. Huggett is an advocate of the use of original instruments. Her repertoire extends from the late Renaissance to the Romantic eras.
—Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire