Baroque by Candlelight 2: Perfect Pairings

Thursday, December 27, 2018 at 5:00PM

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral


Program Notes by Chris Morrison

The Italian Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, originally titled “Concerto in the Italian Style,” first appeared in 1735 in the collection Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercises or Practice), Part 2. In this work, Bach essentially imitates the usual concerto format, in which the solo instrument interacts with a larger ensemble, by contrasting the louder and softer manuals, and different tone colors, of the two-keyboard harpsichord for which the work was written. The outer movements, in F major, are lively and extroverted. In between, the slow movement moves into D minor, and is something of a song without words, with a highly-decorated melodic line accompanied by chords.

Antonio Vivaldi composed a total of 27 concertos for solo cello, but only one for two cellos. Like so many of his works, the Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos was probably written for the all-girl orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, with which Vivaldi was associated for some four decades. The tone color of the paired cellos and the minor key help to account for the somber sound of some of the work. The cellos announce their presence at the very beginning of the energetic opening Allegro, which also features a particularly attractive interlude in the major mode. After a songful Largo of rather grave beauty, the work concludes with an extroverted Allegro that features more contrapuntal dialogue between the two soloists.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major was perhaps the first of the Brandenburg Concertos to be written. Scored for pairs of violas and gambas (usually cellos nowadays) along with a continuo group of cello, bass and harpsichord – no violins – the Concerto No. 6 might have been performed at some point by Prince Leopold’s orchestra, with the Prince playing the gamba and Bach the viola (his favorite instrument to play in orchestral settings). The first movement lives up to the “moderato” in its title; the music has a steady, stately pace, with rich, tightly-woven polyphony, including an opening imitative canon for the two violas. The plaintive second movement, dominated by the violas, leads into a swinging finale in a jig-like rhythm.

Although he is largely remembered today for his 500+ concertos, Antonio Vivaldi wrote a host of other works in most of the popular genres of his day. This includes over fifty sonatas for violin and continuo accompaniment. The Violin Sonata in C Major was probably written around the same time as the twelve sonatas that were published as Vivaldi’s Op. 2 in 1709. The C major Sonata was dedicated to Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), one of the great violinists of his day, who led the Court Orchestra in Dresden. Like most of Vivaldi’s sonatas, this one takes the form of a sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, with four movements in a tempo sequence of slow-fast-slow-fast.

Vivaldi’s concertos known as The Four Seasons are classical music bestsellers. Winter, the final concerto, is the shortest and darkest of the four. Agitation is evident from the opening of the first movement, the rhythms suggesting shivering people stomping their feet to stay warm. Trills in the violins imitate chattering teeth, and arpeggios from the soloist the chill of winter winds. The mood lightens in the serene second movement. Pizzicato (plucked) notes from the violins imitate icy raindrops (one didn’t see that much snow in the Venice of Vivaldi’s time), while the warmth of the soloist’s song offers comfort in front of the roaring fire. With careful footsteps on an icy path, the final movement creeps in tentatively, but soon erupts in swirling winds.

Domenico Scarlatti served at the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican, the patriarchal chapel in Lisbon, and at the Spanish court in both Seville and Madrid. Although he composed operas and liturgical pieces, he is remembered today mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas. The D minor Sonata, K. 32 was composed in 1739. Sometimes referred to as “Aria,” it is a melancholy work, light in texture and stately in tempo. Dating from the early 1750s, the Sonata in C major, K. 159 carries the nickname “La caccia,” or “The Hunt.” Its opening theme certainly resembles a hunting call, and the dance-like character of the music is infectious.

Like the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor probably dates from his years at  Anhalt-Köthen. Prince Leopold’s orchestra featured two well-known performers, Joseph Speiss and Martin Friedrich Marcus, as its principal violinists, and Bach may have had them in mind in writing this work. The first movement is in the ritornello form of the time, in which a recurring theme in the orchestra alternates with passages for the soloists. Soloists and orchestra frequently trade or overlap phrases, or perform in counterpoint with one another as equal partners. In the slow movement, the lovely opening theme in the violins turns up again later in a more contrapuntal form. A variation of the ritornello form is employed in the lively third movement, where the solo violins lead off the ritornello statements and are featured in their own brilliant passages.