VIVALDI & BACH
with Rachel Podger
November 2-6, 2016
VERACINI Overture No. 6 in G minor
VIVALDI Violin Concerto in D major “L’inquietudine”
BACH Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin
TARTINI Concerto for Violin in A major
VIVALDI Chamber Concerto in G minor
BACH Orchestral Suite No. 1
Rachel Podger, leader and violin
By Bruce Lamott
It’s no coincidence that a Golden Age of virtuosic violin playing would accompany the Golden Age of violin making, centered in the Cremona workshop of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), whose instruments have eluded replication and analysis for three hundred years. The Italian masters on this program, Vivaldi and the succeeding generation of Veracini and Tartini, pressed the limits of violinistic technique to the limit, especially considering that their instruments were played without shoulder rests and other modifications that facilitated the later virtuosity of the nineteenth century. The only non-Italian on our program, J.S. Bach, was fluent in the stylistic language of these Italian contemporaries, and through his study of the scores of Vivaldi, became his most distinguished pupil via “distance education” centuries before the internet.
VERACINI: Overture No. 6 in G Minor
Our program is bookended by two very different works entitled “overture,” reflecting the catch-all nature of a term used to describe a multi-movement work for instrumental ensemble. (An instrumental piece preceding an opera or oratorio—an “overture” in the modern sense—was then called a sinfonia.). Francesco Maria Veracini was a peripatetic virtuoso who performed throughout Europe, including his native Florence, London, Düsseldorf, Prague, Venice, and Dresden. The Overture in G Minor was one of six written in 1716 to win the attention of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus. Veracini’s eventual post at the Friedrich’s court in Dresden earned the enmity of fellow musicians as his salary exceeded even that of the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen; fearing for his life (so he said), he jumped out of a third-storey window, breaking his leg and thereby limping for the rest of his life.
Veracini’s Overture No. 6 begins with a concerto grosso movement in which a trio of two oboes and bassoon alternates in dialogue with the strings. The lively Allegro is dominated by swirling triplets that cascade through the strings in the opening measures. Veracini gives the illusion of imitative fugal writing, but it is of the Alphonse-and-Gaston variety, in which the parts alternate rather than interrupt. The Largo is a gentle dialogue between the strings and the wind trio, while a continuous bass-line “walks” throughout the conversation.
Veracini’s eccentric personality shows in the final movements. (The English music historian Dr. Burney described him as “one possessed of a capo pazzo,” i.e., a madman). The third movement begins conventionally enough, setting the listener up with what might be construed as the subject and countersubject of a fugue. The continuously stepwise movement in sighing pairs of appoggiaturas is interrupted by inexplicably prickly passages of staccato repeated notes, ending with an emphatic and almost obsessive repetition of the final cadence. Even more curious is the clumsy concluding minuet, played entirely in austere unison.
VIVALDI: Concerto in D Major, “L’inquietudine,” RV 234
For many listeners, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (I Quattro Stagioni) is their entry-level introduction to his work. The musical representation of chirping birds, falling rain, slippery ice, thunderstorms, and even barking dogs resonates with our own observations of the natural world and provide a soundtrack for our imagination. Less familiar, however, are his representations of the inner world of the human psyche in solo violin concertos that portray rest, (Il riposo), suspicion (Il Sospetto), serenity (il piacere) and in this concert, turmoil and anxiety (L’inquietudine).
The opening Allegro of L’inquietudine has an almost minimalist aesthetic of simple prolonged harmonies animated by vigorous repetition. There is an obsessive/compulsive element in the incessant rhythmic pulsations and asymmetrical phrase lengths interspersed with rueful solo digressions in minor. The form is terse and concise, ending as abruptly as it began. Instead of the flowing arioso style typical of Vivaldi’s slow movements, this Largo twitches with the dotted rhythms of the French overture connected by scalar passages (tirate) that swoop up and down between them. The soloist proposes a more lyrical melody in the gently rocking rhythm of a siciliana but is cut off after only three measures. The tempo may be slower, but the angst continues unabated.
The final Allegro is a catalogue of devices familiar from The Four Seasons. The soloist breaks the mounting tension of the incessantly jerky dotted rhythms with brilliant passagework accompanied by lunging figures in the continuo. The solo figuration nervously shifts from scales to arpeggios to wide leaps played in rapid-fire alternation until the tutti interrupts with a passage of shimmering repeated notes (a figure called bombilans) similar to that which precedes the thunderstorm in his Summer (L’estate) concerto. There is no respite from the inner turmoil; only another one of Vivaldi’s psycho-concertos can relieve it.
J.S. BACH: Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, BWV 1060
Bach, like Handel, was an unapologetic recycler of previously composed material, a practice common in the Baroque period, His multiple responsibilities in Leipzig—church cantor, resident music teacher, and director of a municipal band—demanded an unending stream of vocal and instrumental compositions, many of them now lost. He must have brought an impressive portfolio of earlier works from his years in Weimar and Cöthen to Leipzig in 1723, and over two decades, he repurposed many of them for other instruments and functions.
This double concerto is derived from a “phantom concerto” for oboe and violin known to have existed but now lost except for a transcription for two harpsichords. The distinctly different ranges and musical idioms of the right-hand parts of the two harpsichords clearly fit the violin and oboe, and string parts have been reconstructed from the rest of the material. The opening phrase of the first movement ends with an unaccompanied two-note echo that becomes a distinctive motive heard throughout the movement. The exchange of long-breathed melodies in the second movement confirms its origins in wind or stringed instruments, as the exquisitely sustained suspensions are decidedly unidiomatic for the instantly decaying sound of the harpsichord. The oboe and violin are equal in prominence but differentiated by what each does best: the violin does the heavy lifting when it comes to passagework in the outer movements, while the plangent oboe adds poignancy to the middle movement.
TARTINI: Concerto for Violin in A Major, D 96
Tartini , a generation younger than Vivaldi, was as well-known as a pedagogue as he was a composer and virtuoso violinist. It is said that after hearing Veracini perform in Venice in 1716, Tartini became so dissatisfied with his own bowing that he sequestered himself away in Ancona until he could develop a new technique. He passed these ideas on to students from all over Europe at a violin school he founded in Padua. This “Paduan school” of virtuosic string playing influenced generations of composers and performers, including Luigi Boccherini.
His A Major Violin Concerto is remarkable both in its inner and outer form. The opening Allegro is single-minded in its use of a martial tattoo (bump bada bump bump, or “shave and a haircut” without “two bits”) in nearly every phrase. The tutti strings tap out the incisive motive while the violin soloist decorates the figure and fills the rest at the end of the phrase with increasingly fleet passagework. A couple of episodes allow a respite of lyricism before the march resumes. The four movements, fast-slow-fast-slow, allow him not one but two opportunities for expressive arioso solo melodies over gently pulsing string harmonies. The Adagio is a catalog of decorative figures that wind around a simple underlying melody in a textbook example of Italianate ornamentation. The Presto is a jolly dance, a lilting passepied with strings synched in parallel harmonies of thirds and sixths. The concerto concludes with a short binary (AABB) movement written in the symmetrically phrased galant style; two eight-bar periods both divide into equal four-bar phrases.
VIVALDI: Chamber Concerto in G Minor, RV 105
The primacy of the violin is indisputable in the works Antonio Vivaldi. Of his 500-plus concertos, nearly half were written for solo violin and strings and nearly all of the rest for various solo instruments or combinations with strings and the ubiquitous basso continuo of keyboard and/or theorbo and cello. A notable exception is this “chamber concerto” written for flauto (recorder), oboe, violin, bassoon, and continuo, in which the violin yields much of the spotlight to the winds. In the first movement, the bassoon takes off with a flurry of passagework contrasted with sighing appoggiaturas in the recorder and oboe. The violin contributes vivacity in sporadic scales and arpeggios that energize, but do not predominate. The brief Largo is a duet for recorder (oboe?) and bassoon. The bassoon once comes out of the gate running once again in the final movement, contrasted with the lilting siciliana rhythms of the other instruments.
J.S. BACH: Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
The popularity of Bach’s music for orchestral ensemble belies its paucity: six Brandenburg Concertos, twenty-odd solo concertos, and four orchestral suites are his only known surviving works other than the instrumental sinfonias that precede some of his cantatas. All of the orchestral suites date from his years in Leipzig, the earliest (No. 1) from around 1725 and the latest (No. 2) from 1738-39. Unlike the Brandenburgs, there was no specific patron or occasion for which they were written, but they were undoubtedly played in the weekly performances (twice weekly during the three yearly trade fairs) of the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble of professional and student musicians who met on Friday nights at Zimmermann’s Coffee House, indoors in winter, al fresco in summer.
The Orchestral Suites, or ouvertures as Bach called them, are collections of French dances made popular at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. But unlike Bach’s keyboard suites, whose basic sequence of the traditional allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue reflects the practice of his German contemporaries, they are composed of more currently popular dances, known collectively as galanterie.
In the First Suite, the gavotte, minuet, bourrée, and passepied are also paired with another of the same type, to be performed “alternativement,” I/II/I, or ABA. This practice continues in the later eighteenth century in the minuet-and-trio (and later scherzo-and-trio) sequence of the Classic-era symphony.
Bach’s First Suite opens with the three-part form of the “French overture” developed by Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. A grand introduction and conclusion in a stately tempo with stodgy dotted rhythms frame a lively fugue in which Bach weds the French overture to the Italian concerto grosso A trio à la Lully of two oboes and bassoon break free of their roles doubling the strings to play independent solo episodes. The galanterie Bach selects are all cheerful in affect, including the only forlane in all of Bach’s works; he gives this gigue-like dance (described as “lusty and flirtatious”) a pastoral flavor with murmuring second violins and violas and a static drone in the bass.