Baroque by Candlelight 1: Violin Virtuosi
Thursday, December 27, 2018 at 2:00 PM
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
Program Notes by Chris Morrison
Antonio Vivaldi is remembered as one of the fathers of instrumental music and the master of the concerto for soloist(s) and orchestra – of which he wrote over 550, including over 250 for violin. Concertos for four violins, both with Vivaldi and in the wider musical world, are few. Vivaldi’s best-known such work is the Concerto in B minor, RV 580 from the collection L’estro armonico, Op. 3. The Concerto in B-flat major, on the other hand, is a comparative rarity, probably written in the 1740s and unpublished in Vivaldi’s lifetime. Both concertos, though, share instrumental virtuosity as well as the standard three-movement form, in which two lively movements frame a more lyrical central section.
As is the case with his Sonatas and Partitas for violin, there is some mystery as to why Johann Sebastian Bach composed the six Suites for solo cello, which, like the violin works, date from around 1720. One of the noteworthy elements of the Suite No. 5 in C minor is that it was written in scordatura, or with retuned strings. In this case, the A string, the highest, is moved down to G (the work can also be performed with conventional tuning). The Suite No. 5’s opening Prelude starts with a slow section, exploiting the lowest part of the cello’s range, and continues with a fast fugue. The two Gavottes are quite lively, and the concluding Gigue is a bit more serious and complex than this lighthearted dance typically is.
From 1717 to 1723, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen as director of the Prince’s orchestra. Among Bach’s best-known works from that period are the six Brandenburg Concertos, commissioned in 1719 by, and named after, Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Because of the prominence of the keyboard part, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major is often regarded as the first keyboard concerto ever written, even though there are also solo roles for violin and flute (in this performance replaced by a second violin). In the first movement, the keyboard tends to take the leading role, including a lengthy unaccompanied solo toward the end of the movement. Marked Affettuoso (tender or emotional), the second movement features only the three soloists, with the right hand of the keyboardist taking the melodic lead, backed by the left hand and the two other soloists. The two violins are highlighted in the third movement, a fast, charming gigue with contrapuntal textures.
Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the most prolific composers of all time, with over 3,000 works to his credit, including over 1,000 church cantatas and 600 suites for orchestra. Telemann also composed around 100 concertos, some for friends or special occasions, and others for the weekly Collegium musicum concerts that Telemann led in Frankfurt. Four concertos for four violins have come down to us, each marked by great virtuosity. Like its fellows, the Concerto for Four Violins in D major is in four concise movements, the first and third slow, the second and fourth fast.
Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are generally regarded as among the greatest music ever written for the instrument, featuring a dazzling range of tone colors, textures, and moods. As one critic has written, “To the violinist they are a complete world of beauty, and a training ground whereon his powers may always be proved and tested.” Perhaps the most famous section of the Partita No. 3 in E major is the exciting opening Preludio, a fast, steady stream of sixteenth notes that became so well-known that Bach rearranged the music for use in two of his cantatas. Next comes the Loure, a slow dance sometimes referred to as the “Spanish gigue.” The Gavotte en Rondeau is tuneful, alternating a folksy tune with other episodes, and a sprightly Gigue brings the work to a lively conclusion.
While the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is seen as the first-ever keyboard concerto, Bach’s first official keyboard concerto is the Concerto in D minor. Its music, arranged differently, was used in a couple of Bach’s cantatas from the late 1720s. Bach scholars speculate, though, that the music might date from even earlier, in the form of a violin or organ concerto now lost. The first movement begins with a powerful theme, slightly varied versions of which return regularly, with contrasting sections moving into different keys. The keyboard part includes a solo cadenza near the end. The slow movement, in triple meter, opens with a repeating bass figure, first played by soloist and orchestra together. Over that figure, the keyboard spins out a long, highly decorated melodic line. The closing Allegro is structured much like the opening movement, with an opening theme that returns throughout. The soloist is again on full display, including another showy cadenza. A final statement of the opening theme concludes a work that, in the words of Richard D.P. Jones, “conveys a sense of huge elemental power.”