ANNE SOFIE von OTTER
Period instruments, originally introduced to modern audiences by historically informed performers in their effort to re-create the sonority of instrumental music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are recently being recognized by contemporary composers for their potential as a new source of orchestral timbre. Once heralded as “authentic instruments” in recordings in the 1970s, they were perceived as musically inferior to their “improved” symphonic counterparts embraced by countercultural ensembles. Through patient and rigorous study, however, a generation of virtuoso performers has mastered their unruly idiosyncrasies—the fickle intonation of gut strings, the precarious accuracy of valveless brass, and challenges of scantily keyed woodwinds—and period instrument orchestras, like PBO, have taken their rightful place alongside their nineteenth-century progeny.
Likewise, the countertenor voice, a technically mastered use of falsetto or naturally high “chest voice” by an adult man, has emerged in the past fifty years or so from a curiosity spurned or scorned by voice teachers to a legitimate vocal fach (category) taking a rightful place alongside soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, and bass. Found especially in the performance of Baroque vocal music today in lieu of the extinct castrati, countertenors were known to have sung some of the alto solos in Handel’s church music and oratorios. In his operas, castrati and female mezzos in male dress (called “trouser roles”) were used somewhat interchangeably, according to the circumstances of supply and demand.
Just as Wanda Landowska commissioned new works for her Pleyel harpsichord from Francis Poulenc and Manuel de Falla in the 1920s, Philharmonia has commissioned works by Caroline Shaw suited to our sound and instrumentation. The transparency of an assiduously tuned string choir unobscured by vibrato and gut strings played with feather-light bows not only serve the fleet passagework of Handel and Vivaldi but also the transcendent harmonies of modern composers such as Shaw and Arvo Pärt.
Handel, Partenope: Overture
This overture to one of Handel’s frothiest Italian operas demonstrates that all “dotted figures” are not created equal. So-called because of the notated “dot” that prolongs the first note of a two-note rhythmic pattern, it first appears in its conventional form as the slow introduction to a stately “French overture.” However, the customary Allegro which follows transforms the majestic into the flippant, not unlike Dvorak’s Humoresque known to beginning violinists. The concluding Presto is an Italian giga of nonstop galloping eighth-notes, appropriately introducing the comedy of errors which follows.
Handel, Partenope: “Ch’io parta?” and “Furibondo spira il vento”
Partenope was the second production of the season now known as Handel’s Second Academy in 1729-30. The story of the suitors of Partenope, Queen of Naples had already been set in 23 operas before Handel got to it, and the details of the plot need not concern us here. The beauty of hearing arias from these serious operas (opere serie) of Handel out of context as opposed, say, to those in Puccini’s Tosca, is that only the musical signifiers of the emotion, called Affekt by the Germans, are essential; the intrigues of the plot are irrelevant. Each principal character is given a variety of arias, each to demonstrate a single aspect of his or her personality. These two arias for Arsace, Partenope’s principal suitor, were written for the alto castrato Antonio Bernacchi. Handel would classify Ch’io parta? as a “pathetick aria,” in which Arsace’s genuinely broken heart is expressed in wide leaps and expressive silences, stripped bare of orchestral pretense and ornament. Furibondo spira il vento, on the other hand, is a “simile aria,” a bravura depiction of a windstorm calling for a theatrical display of vocal agility sure to incite enthusiastic applause at the end of Act II.
Handel, Solomon: “Will the sun forget to streak” and “Welcome as the dawn of day”
Though Handel had all voice types on hand for the premiere of his oratorio Solomon in 1749, he chose a female alto (Caterina Galli) for the title role opposite soprano Giulia Frasi in the double role as Solomon’s Queen and (in the final act) the Queen of Sheba. The latter, whose arrival is greeted by one of Handel’s greatest orchestral hits, is not a love interest but a tourist and admirer from exotic lands. The lush orchestration of her aria features a composite sonority of oboe and transverse flute playing stately regal rhythms over pulsating harmonies in the strings, while the queen in modest phrases proclaims her admiration for Solomon’s wisdom and splendor.
The duet ‘twixt Solomon and his wife, “Welcome as the dawn of day,” introduces one of the raciest scenes in English Biblical oratorio. It was so erotic, in fact, as to be expurgated from the early Novello edition. The king and his bride express their passion before they “haste to the cedar grove” to consummate their love “while nightingales lull them to sleep with their song.” Their melodic lines of fugal imitation entwine in this duet while the strings discreetly comment from the sidelines.
Handel, Semele: “Iris, hence away!”
Following on the heels of the oratorios Messiah and Samson, the appearance of Semele in February 1744, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dashed the expectations of audiences expecting another Biblical epic. Handel’s friend Mary Delany, who found it charming, wrote that “Semele has a strong party against it, viz. the fine ladies, petit maîtres, and ignoramus’s [sic].” In this inter-deity sitcom, the goddess Juno beckons Iris, messenger of the Gods, to join her flight to the darkened realm of Somnus, god of sleep, whose peaceful slumber she intends to “molest with noise and light.” Urgent repeated notes in the bass impel sporadic interjections from the violins while Juno breathlessly describes their route “o’er Scythian hills to the Meotian lake.”
Handel, Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op. 3 No. 2
Though it were composed in 1715 to 1718, this concerto grosso didn’t appear in print until 1734 in a compilation of other early works which Handel’s publisher John Walsh labeled Opus 3. Handel’s biographer Donald Burrows says that it was surely written for the Haymarket opera orchestra and shares some of its music with an overture to the Brockes Passion, an oratorio Handel may have composed in Hamburg. Which was borrowed from which is uncertain. The concerto reflects both the French and Italian styles as well as the Germans’ penchant for bringing them together. The opening Vivace begins and ends with the dotted rhythms of the French overture over a repeated bass, out of which emerges Italianate passagework of two solo violins. The languid Largo begins with the atmosphere of an Italian aria. Pulsing strings interwoven with a cello duet precedes an oboe solo that begs for ornamentation. The spell is broken by the rather pedantic German fugue which follows. The last two movements are French court dances. First comes a passepied, a fast minuet, with the shifting textures of an Italian concerto grosso. The solo group begins with a trio of two oboes and cello, joined later by two solo violins. The finale is a gavotte with two variations (doubles), first with a running (not walking) bass, then by continuous triplets in the violins which give this French dance the spirit of an Italian gigue (giga).
Pärt: Summa, Vater Unser, Es sang vor langen Jahren
The music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is perhaps the polar opposite of Baroque music. While the aesthetic of the latter values complexity, movement, bravura expressivity, and virtuosity, Pärt embraces an austere tonal style he calls “tintinnabulation,” inspired by Medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony.
In his words,
Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
Summa reflects its origins as an a cappella vocal work for four singers with text from the Credo of the Mass. First written in 1978, it was arranged by the composer for string orchestra some twelve years later. Although he did not specify period instruments, the clarity of their intonation and transparency of their sound complement the transcendence of the mesmerizing harmony. There is a gentle, jaunty lilt to the rocking two-note motif that pervades the work with Baroque regularity, and the repetitions give a spiritual mantra-like dimension to the piece.
Vater Unser. Pärt’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer was a spontaneous work written for boy’s voice and piano in 2005. Dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI, it was performed at the Vatican celebration on the 60th anniversary of his ordination in 2011. The text is intoned with childlike simplicity over gently oscillating violins supported by a placid bass line.
Es sang vor langen Jahren was written in 1984 for the composer and theorist Diether de la Motte (1928–2010). The interweaving of the violin and viola and pervasive rocking rhythm suggest the tedium of the pining lover who sings of spinning “bright, clean threads.” The plangent minor melody in a sparse musical landscape evokes both the loneliness and nostalgia in the text by Clemens Brentano (1778–1842).
Shaw: The Edge
In this treatment of Jacob Polley’s poem, written in 2017, the enigmatic question “Where does the moment go?” is treated somewhat like a rondo, accompanied by a Baroque rhythmic figure that the composer readily admits to borrowing: “When in doubt, the articulation & phrasing should always be in the style of Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga.” The plaintive oboe solo that begins the piece makes way for a freely sung vocal line without the constraints of precise rhythms. Shaw breaks the conventional distance between composer and performers with other conversational quips in the parts. At the particularly “violinistic” climax, she exposes her own background as a string player in a freely-bowed passage marked “wildly ecstatic, irregular arpeggios, like Corelli on Red Bull.”
Shaw: Red, Red Rose
This ethereal setting of Robert Burns’s familiar poem was the first piece commissioned by Philharmonia from Caroline Shaw. The wistful opening lines are intoned in free rhythm over a pizzicato bass. A rhythmically pliant E-minor triad is then outlined by the strings as the folk-like vocal melody leisurely unfolds. The entrance of the oboe in the second stanza is accompanied by an undulating ostinato, later taken up by the harpsichord. A brief interlude breaks out of the hypnotic key before the final stanza trails off into an ethereal harmony sustained by the humming voices of the orchestra.
Purcell: The Fairy Queen
The hiatus in English music brought by the Puritan Revolution and the Commonwealth era (1649–1660) was compensated by the flourishing of Italian and French music and stagecraft, leading to the building of new theaters with mechanical special effects, lavish furnishings, and audiences eager to indulge themselves in long-suppressed excess. These theatrical entertainments were in the form of masques consisting of solos, choruses, dances, and spoken dialogue, for, as a contemporary writer observed, “Other Nations bestow the name of Opera only on such Plays whereof every word is sung. But experience hath taught us that our English genius will not relish that perpetual singing.” Only in Handel’s generation did “perpetual singing” become the norm in London. Purcell’s instrumental music for Fairy Queen, a masque loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reflects the popularity of theatrical dances in the English (hornpipe) and French (rondeau) forms as well as a canonic “Dance for the Followers of Night.” The final Chaconne is a series of variations on an 8-bar harmonic progression with the second beat accents characteristic of the French court dance, the sarabande. French composers often ended acts or complete works with such chaconnes, and the Francophile Purcell concludes his masque in the same manner.