CAMBRIDGE - Saturday's superb Boston Early Music Festival concert by English violinist John Holloway, Dutch cellist Jaap ter Linden, and Danish harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen highlighted two early 18th-century specialties: the instrumental solo sonata (with its keyboard-and-cello continuo accompaniment) and the virtuoso violinist-composer.
Centering the program was its stylistic reference point, Arcangelo Corelli. In Corelli's E-minor Op. 5 No. 8 Sonata - performed in a composer-sanctioned keyboardless configuration - ter Linden's round, earthy timbral foundation balanced Holloway's brighter core and satin finish. Mortensen - arpeggiating and ornamentating with vibrant, virtuosic Rococo brushwork - joined ter Linden in a gorgeous rendition of Antonio Vivaldi's G-minor cello Sonata (RV 42), which refashions Corelli's pattern (the works have identical four-movement layouts) into more operatic drama, the melodies more disjunct and mercurial than Corelli's smooth intricacy.
Francesco Maria Veracini took a different tack, augmenting Corelli's musical vocabulary with imaginative extravagance. The 12th and final of his Op. 2 sonatas builds each movement around a repeated, descending figure - chromatic in most cases, except for the sturdy four-note diatonic staircase of a traditional "Ciaccona" - engendering a rich profusion. (The "Scozzesse" from the ninth Sonata made a bewitching encore.)
Music of Jean-Marie Leclair anchored the Francophile first half, marrying Italian rhetoric to his own French school of violin-playing. His Op. 5 No. 1 Sonata prioritizes poise: Even the finale's driving passagework pulls into an unexpectedly graceful final cadence, a hornet alighting like a butterfly. Op. 5 No. 4 showcased Holloway's violin with the sort of technical challenges one of Leclair's contemporaries described as "a kind of algebra," though the final "Chaconna" - using the same four-note bass as Veracini - was a more restrained machine than Veracini's high-performance Italian engine.
Unlike Leclair or his court predecessor François Couperin (whose undulating harpsichord-solo "Les Barricades Mistérieuses" had a cameo), Joseph Bodin de Boismortier sold his music to the public rather than relying on royal patronage. His A-minor Trio (Op. 37, No. 5) was the evening's most modern-sounding piece, its three-movement structure anticipating the Classic era, some startling stoptime rhythms in the last movement looking forward seemingly further.
The fluent ensemble attested to the performers' longstanding collaboration. Most noteworthy was the rhythmic flexibility, tempos in subtle flux without a sacrifice of momentum.
But not a small part of the entertainment was the contrast in physical demeanor: Holloway's nobility, Mortensen's rag-doll expressivity, ter Linden's genial calm - a lion, a scarecrow, and an agile tin man, off to meet a host of Baroque wizards on happily equal terms.