Torelli - Concerto opus 8/9 in e minor
Albinoni - Concerto opus 10/11 in c minor
Vivaldi – Autumn and Winter from The Four Seasons
Leclair Solo concerto opus 10/3 in D major
J S Bach Solo concerto BWV 1042 in E major
Many years ago, Professor Peter Schickele produced a long playing album called “P.D.Q. Bach on the Air.” On this record was a contest for the radio-listening public in which the first prize was “the complete works of Antonio Vivaldi, sent to you on convenient 45RPM discs, one record per week, for the next thirty-five years of your life.” It is true that Vivaldi was a prolific composer and also that he wrote a vast amount of concertos, but to accuse him of being a “routinier” would do him a great disservice. Like his younger colleague, Domenico Scarlatti, who composed well over five hundred one-movement sonatas for solo keyboard, Vivaldi retained a high degree of inspiration within many iterations of a single form. This evening, we are treated to a concerto for a full ensemble, which looks back to the origin of the concerto as a struggle between different instruments (the word, concertante, is Latin for struggle). The idea of the solo concerto evolved a bit later on. Vivaldi’s solo concertos are represented this evening by two of the set known as “Gli quattro stagioni,” or “ The Four Seasons,” published as Opus 8 in 1725. This opus is part of a collection referred to as the “contest of harmony and invention.” Tonight we hear “L’Autunno” (Autumn) and “L’Inverno” (Winter). All four seasons include sonnets that indicate a bit of what we will hear. I have included English translations (not my own) to bring the listeners closer to the fun:
The peasant celebrates the blissful pleasure
Of a happy harvest with dances and songs,
And, glowing with the liquor of Bacchus,
Many complete their enjoyment with sleep/
The Air, tempered by pleasure, makes
Everyone give up dances and songs.
It is the season that invites so many
To the great enjoyment of a sweet sleep.
At dawn the hunters are off to the hunt
With horns, rifles, and dogs.
The wild beast flees and they follow its trail.
Frightened alread, and fatigued by the noise
Of rifles and dogs, wounded, it threatens
Languidly to flee, but, overcome, it dies.
To tremble from cold in the icy snow,
In the harsh breath of a horrid wind;
To run, stamping our feet every moment,
Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold.
Before the fire to pass peaceful,
Contented days while the rain outside pours down.
To walk on the ice and, at a slow pace
(for fear of falling), move carefully.
To make a bold turn, slip, fall down/
To go on the ice once more and run hard
Until the ice cracks and breaks up.
To hear the Sirocco, Boreas, and all
The sinde at war leave their iron gates;
This is winter, but, even so, what joy it brings!
It goes without saying that Vivaldi’s virtuosic use of the string instruments, especially the solo violin, must have delighted the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, for whom he worked for a period of years beginning in 1718, and who was the dedicatee of op. 8.
Another great contributor to the art of the concerto, both solo and grosso, was the Veronese, Giuseppe Torelli. He was employed by 1686 in Bologna as a member of the regular “capella musicale” of the basilica of San Petronio, though not officially as a violinist—he played the viola and the tenor viol. His frequent absences, which were noted in the church’s records, indicate some displeasure at his growing career as a solo violinist. By December of 1699, he was in Vienna, but returned to Italy in 1700 with the aim of making a pilgrimage to Loreto, and also to drink of the waters of San Marino “having been so advised by the doctors here because of my cursed hypochondria and melancholy, which torments me greatly, though I have the look of a prince.” Opus 8, from which we hear tonight the ninth concerto, shows a mature and innovative view of the concerto, both solo and grosso. It follows the movement scheme that is associated with the Sinfonias played before operas: fast, slow, and fast.
Baroque Band has performed works of Tomaso Albinoni before. Suffice it to say that Albinoni came from well-to-do circumstances in Venice and did not need to work as a musician. Nevertheless, he learned singing and violin (he is purported by some to have studied with Legrenzi, but this cannot be substantiated) and was an active and gifted composer with a fine ear for counterpoint and the sound of stringed instruments. Upon the death of his father, Antonio, in 1709, Tomaso inherited a share of the family paper business from which he drew an income. The management of the business was left to his two younger brothers, thus highlighting his commitment to music. While Albinoni is known chiefly for his music for strings (he styled himself “musico de violino”), he was prolific in other musical realms, especially that of opera. In the libretto of his penultimate opera, “Candalide,” the work is described as his eightieth work in that genre! His works for strings survive also in some splendid transcriptions for organ by the German, Johann Walther/.
Jean-Marie LeClair was, by the age of nineteen, proficient in the arts of violin playing, dancing, and lacemaking. He went to Paris (having been born in Lyons) in 1723 and made the acquaitance (and enjoyed the patronage) of one of the wealthiest men in France, Joseph Bonnier, to whom his op. 1 was dedicated. These sonatas were respected for their originality, although they were considered rather difficult—according to one contemporary, they appeared to be “a kind of algebra capable of rebuffing the most courageous musicians.” Another writer wrote a bit of doggerel that calls LeClair the finest, whom no one can imitate. He appeared in the Concerts Spirituels, an important series in Paris, to great acclaim, and also went to London and to Kassel, where he and the Italian, Pietro Locatelli, played at the court. LeClair was known for sweetness and suavity, both archly French traits, while Locatelli astonished his hearers with a deliberately scratchy tone and left-hand pyrotechnics! A writer of the period maintained that LeClair played like an angel and that Locatelli played like a devil. We hear this evening the third concerto from opus 10—Leclair’s sure knowledge of the violin’s language is evident throughout as is his marriage of things Italian and things French in his compositions. Sadly, Leclair was murdered as he entered his house (in an unsavory neighborhood of Paris) on October 22, 1764—an investigation yielded three suspects: the gardener who found the body, his estranged wife, and nephew, Guillaume-Francois Vial, with whom he had quarelled. The evidence points so clearly to Vial’s guilt that it remains a mystery that he was never brought to trial!
A richness of harmony and an abiding love of counterpoint had been a characteristic of German music since the sixteenth century, but the German-speaking world was also very fond of French and Italian elements in music and culture. Johann Sebastian Bach’s concertos are formed upon Italian models but also embrace a complexity that earned him contemporary comparisons to Leibniz and Newton. It is likely that Bach composed the concerto heard at the end of tonight’s program during his years in Anhalt-Cothen, where he was employed as a composer of secular music, owing to the Calvinist faith of the Prince and his court. He later transcribed this concerto in the key of D Major for keyboard and strings, probably for the use of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum which he served as director for a period of time.
Cast in three movements (slow, fast, and slow), the concerto begins with a ternary movement in ritornello form, in the manner of Vivaldi, Torelli, Albinoni, and a host of others. The second movement is anchored by a repeating bass line heard at its beginning and end and throughout. The third movement takes the form of a dancelike rondeau.
Simon Standage is well-known as a violinist specialising in seventeenth and eighteenth century music. Leader and soloist with The English Concert from its foundation until 1990, he also fulfilled the same role for many years with the City of London Sinfonia. As well as the many records he made with The English Concert (including Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, nominated for a Grammy award), he also recorded solo and chamber music – including all of Mozart’s violin concertos – with the Academy of Ancient Music, of which he was, with Christopher Hogwood, Associate Director from 1991 to 1995. Since his foundation, with Richard Hickox, of Collegium Musicum 90, he has made numerous recordings for Chandos Records, which have met with consistent critical acclaim.
As soloist and director of chamber orchestras and chamber musician, he is active both in Britain and abroad, where he had for some years a regular collaboration with Collegium Musicum Telemann in Osaka and Haydn Sinfonietta in Vienna. He is leader of the Salomon String Quartet (founded by him in 1981), which specialises in historical performance of the Classical repertoire, performing worldwide and making many recordings and broadcasts. He is Professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.
In 2008 he received a medal for services to Polish Culture, in 2009 he was awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music and in 2010 he was the recipient of the Georg Philipp Telemann Prize, awarded by the city of Magdeburg.