Friday, 22 August 2014

Album review - Locatelli's Concerto Grossi Op 1, No 1-6

It's been a while since I posted and may be a while till I post again, it's a tough time at the moment. But I thought I would take this opportunity to post an review I wrote which I posted on Classicsonline. It''s for a Naxos recording of Locatelli's Concerto Grossi Op 1 No 1-6 performed by Capella Istropolitana conducted by Jaroslav Krcek.

Locatelli’s Concerto Grossi is a vivid collection of the moods of the violin that never loses the liveliness we can expect from a virtuosic player-composer. They’re not violin concertos of course, but they make heavy use of the string section and feature many violin solos and it’s these that really give the overall Opus its character and separate it from the better known Concerto Grossi of Handel and Corelli.

While they also make good use of the strings, Locatelli’s violin glides effortlessly over the whole and produces the feeling of each movement, from the lively opening of No 1 to the graceful beauty of No 5’s Largo where the violin works in concert with an organ.

The movements are constantly shifting as Locatelli paints a colourful abstract that never allows you to fall into complacency. The movement following the Largo of No 5 is a racing Allegro with the strings rolling along beside a harpsichord.
Even the structures of the individual concerto grosso are disparate so there’s no risk of falling into a formula. Most do start with a livelier movement, usually an Allegro – in fact, most movements are Allegros – but No 6 opens with an almost haunting Adagio before plunging into an Allegro where the strings are split into two refrains which work together at the end for a harmonious whole, underpinned along the way by the harpsichord.

This performance by Capella Istropolitana is smooth and fluid, ranging over the differing movements effortlessly so we can enjoy the journey and never feel jarred. It is a masterful display of some lesser known but very deserving Baroque.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Look Back at the Classic 100 Baroque and Before

The Classic 100 Baroque and Before has come and gone, but what an enjoyable ride it was. It probably didn’t present too many surprises; JS Bach dominated the countdown, Handel followed and his Messiah came in at No 1; Vivaldi and Purcell did well and there were generally more Baroque pieces than Before. But, despite such broad things that were always going to happen, the countdown did reveal the sheer depth and breadth of early and Baroque music.

It could be argued the music was mostly the same but that’s said about every type of music by people who don’t appreciate it. In truth we had polyphony, plain chant, early opera and sacred and secular choral works; plus sonatas and concertos in several instruments in styles that showed more variety than might be assumed. How can you compare the power of an organ toccata with the gentle beauty of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas?

Which brings me to the discoveries of the countdown! No matter how well known many of the pieces in countdowns like this are, there are always some surprises and new encounters – at least for me. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas were one of the most exciting for me, they were amazingly evocative and got just as much, if not more, out of the violin than the flashier sonatas like Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’.

Another curious encounter was JS Bach’s ‘other’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the one called ‘Dorian’. It lacked the dramatic and powerful opening and wouldn’t have the same impact when being played by a mad genius or evil mastermind, but it made up for that with its rolling pace and friendlier melody. In some ways I would argue it’s the more accessible of the two works as the fugue is less complex, something some people find off-putting about organ music.

But what of the Before? There was some complaint on social media that it didn’t get a good enough look in because the Baroque overwhelmed it. And it certainly didn’t do as well overall. There was some, including two in the top 10, but Baroque music was much, much more prominent. Was this a failing of the countdown? Of the voting public? Or just the ABC for not programming it enough?

All those arguments got trotted out on social media as the countdown reached the end. Not just about early music either; the presence of Pachabel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the top 10 caused an inconsiderate amount of moaning on Twitter and apparently showed how ignorant people are and how ABC Classic FM needs to program “insert the complainant’s favourite composer here”. I found it quite ironic that the same people complaining that The Four Seasons are overplayed were very happy about the Messiah being No 1 – surely it’s hard to be more hackneyed than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Of course, in the end I believe it’s a combination of things. The programming informs what listeners know and like and what listeners know and like informs programming – it’s a circle just like all commercialised processes. And it’s beside the point. So the top spots were largely predictable, big deal, the event of the countdown attracts a lot of listeners who may not know much music beyond those ‘monumental’ pieces. It gives them a chance to hear the lesser known works like the ‘Dorian’ and Biber. And from there perhaps they’ll find the love of the music and seek out more. Only then will the ‘what the listeners like’ grow and that will help the programming grow in turn.

And that’s why I love Classic 100 countdowns. That and I get obsessive over lists and this gives me a chance to make a heap of them.

In conclusion, this was a splendid collection of music that celebrated some true ‘classics’ and introduced me to some beautiful works I hadn’t encountered before – and, as always, encouraged me to keep exploring this wonderful sound world. Get listening!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Baroque Composers V - Tartini

Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) was an Italian composer and violinist just like Corelli and Locatelli before him. It appears however that music was not necessarily his first choice for a career. While he likely had basic music instruction in his youth it’s possible he only took up the violin when he was forced to flee Padua and seek protection in a Franciscan monastery.

The reason for this sudden departure was his marriage to a young woman, technically below his station, but a favourite of the local cardinal who promptly accused him of abduction. At least that’s what Wikipedia says, so it must at least be a story associated with him. Another is that after hearing a violin virtuoso he became so inspired to improve his own playing he fled the town he was in, where he had a job in the opera orchestra, to practice more freely.

The biggest legends around Tartini however are related to his most famous composition, the ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata. Its use of double-stop trills make it difficult to play even on modern instruments. Legend has it he wrote it after hearing the Devil play it at the end of his bed in a dream. A 19th century legend had it that he could play it because he had six fingers. I'm actually somewhat ambivalent towards it to be honest. The opening movement is slow and full of longing, then it launches into the virtuosity and it's just a nice bit of violin playing for a while, then some more longing with notes that hold you as they stretch and fade. I don't really get it as a whole piece.

I do enjoy his violin concertos though. Particularly this one in A, D96 which is here performed by Accademia Bizantina on period instruments. with Carlo Chiarappa on violin and conducting. It's not as showy as many concertos and mostly just a nice piece of music, but the second movement is a gorgeous adagio rather reminiscent of a leaf floating on a sunlit river if you go for such imagery.

The legends are fun but the music is better and well worth exploring - get listening!

Monday, 2 June 2014

Baroque Composers IV - Corelli and Locatelli

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was an Italian composer and violinist whose style of playing greatly influenced the performance of the instrument for years to come. He was born into a wealthy family and raised by his mother – since his father died a few weeks before he was born. Much of his life is confused by legend and anecdotes that have no evidence to back them up. We know he was in Rome by 1675 and there built an impressive career as a highly respected violinist. Interestingly however he didn’t like the high register and refused to play it.

Finding that out explains a fair bit about his Violin Sonatas, Op 5 which I recently bought the second half thereof from Classicsonline (it’s a set of 12 so there are two volumes). While demonstrating virtuosic elements throughout, they are much lower in tone than most violin pieces, which I find quite refreshing to be honest. The most famous part of them is No 12, which is known as La Folia, it is a one movement but as long as the others and it explores as much ground – if not more. It is a truly remarkable piece.

The lower register of the works also makes the slow movements that much more beautiful to my mind. He works the violin gently over the accompanying continuo or harpsichord to create a real sense of swoon (if you take my meaning). He even has a Sarabanda Largo; sarabandes are usually dances so this slow version is quite remarkable. It sounds at times like the violin part is being broken over the knee of the harpsichord, only gently.

His most famous composition however is his Concerto Grossi, a set of 12 concerto grossi which influenced a number of composers including Handel who wrote his own set instead of following the more modern (at the time) Venetian concerto popularised by Vivaldi. They’re best known because of the so-called Christmas concerto which is brilliant but the rest of them work equally as well. Here’s No 1 from the set. It opens with all the regal pomp you could expect of the age but soon goes into a questioning yet spritely phase that loses nothing of the ornamental beauty but is rich in feeling, if not deep emotion.

Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) was another Italian violinist and composer who possibly studied under Corelli for a very short time just before Corelli’s death. He spent his early career in Rome , then spent five years travelling Italy and Germany before settling in Amsterdam for the last 30 odd years of his life. Strangely most of his compositions are from his travelling years; in Amsterdam he worked mostly as a teacher and performed publically and privately. In a nice quirk, he never allowed professional musicians into his performances lest they learn too much from him.

There aren’t a whole lot of works by Locatelli and they’re certainly not widely known these days. His Violin Sonatas and Concertos were virtuosic standards in Europe at the time however and he was quite famous as a consequence. I haven't heard much of them to be honest. This concerto (Op 3, No 12) is certainly very nice to begin with, then a couple of minutes in the violin begins some very interesting playing, quite unlike anything else I can think of in the Baroque/Classical repertoire. If that's typical of his works there's much to be explored here.

The first work I knew of his was actually his Opus 1, 12 Concerti Grossi. Of course, this was based on Corelli’s Concerto Grosso but there is a difference. Locatelli makes great use of the violin and string section, usually underpinned by harpsichord. There’s at least one movement where the organ and violin swim together through some beautiful refrains.

Both these composers are very Baroque, with precise playing and rich ornamentation. Corelli does evoke some emotions, particularly in his slower movements, but don’t have the depth shown in later periods. But the music is undeniably beautiful and rich. Well worth taking the time to explore, they also inspire me to find out more about similar composer/violinists of their day like Geminani, Torelli and Tartini who’s my next profile.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Baroque Composers III - Pergolesi

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36) was an organist like my first two surveyed composers but also a celebrated violinist. Also unlike those two he didn’t work as an organist but mostly at the behest of aristocratic patrons. More tragically, he didn’t live very long, his ill-health led to an early death at only 26.

Despite that, Pergolesi is considered by some to be the ‘father of comic opera’, which may be a stretch but he was very successful with them and brought them further into the public domain to contend with opera seria. But his most famous work is his setting of the Stabat Mater, which is one of the best known, loved and influential versions of the work.

Listening to it is a special experience and if you haven't you should set some time aside to really let it carry you away. This performance by the Ricercar Consort is just under 40 minutes. From the opening chords it sets a not quite melancholic tone which transported me to a quiet river where willows weep. When the voices start I was catapulted into the exquisite sorrow of Mary. It really is a powerful work and it isn't all slow and melancholic, which only deepens the effect. Check the lyrics, this is a depressing hymn and Pergolesi captures the mood without throwing us down the well with it.

Of course he wrote much more than that. Being a violinist himself it's little wonder he wrote a fine violin concerto but perhaps a little surprising he wrote this lilting flute concerto which reminds me somewhat of Mozart's.

I'll finish this brief survey with a live performance of his Salve Regina by Accademia degli Astrusi with contralto Sara Mingardo. It's another powerful and moving piece, so give yourself a quarter of an hour to really enjoy it.

For someone who died so young, Pergolesi gave us some rich musical works, let's embrace them so his legacy continues to live centuries after him.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Voting is Open

Well, the final voting list is up and voting has commenced. I totally missed the nomination period so I can’t complain about any absences I would have liked to see on there but it’s a big selection, quite varied and presents some areas for me to explore, which is always exciting.

I have to admit, as a pedant who obsesses over lists I do have some issues with the list. Some of them are true pedantry as some entries are in different formats than others. One puzzling entry is Louis Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecine…. The subeditor in me (that’s my paying job) reviles the fourth dot in the ellipsis, the rest of me just wonders what the ellipsis means. A quick look on Wikipedia tells me his works weren’t published in his lifetime but he wrote a lot of music for the harpsichord. It appears that perhaps the ellipsis means the entry is for the sum total of his keyboard compositions, which seems somewhat strange.

In a roundabout way that brings me to my main issue with the list, some entries are for huge swathes of composition while others are for succinct pieces. If for example we can vote for Louis Couperin’s entire solo harpsichord output as one thing, why must we vote for specific Keyboard Sonatas by Scarlatti, none of which is longer than three minutes? Of course, there is no grouping of Scarlatti’s sonatas like Francois Couperin’s ‘Books’, but there isn’t for Louis’ either beyond collecting them all under one title.

Perhaps the most obvious example for me is that the Brandenburg Concertos are all listed separately yet everywhere else such groups are listed as one piece. Handel’s Concerto Grossi Op 6 No 1-12 for instance and his three Water Music Suites which are simply listed as Water Music (that’s the pedant in me I know). Even worse would be Rameau’s Pieces de clavecin en concert, which are unrelated works written over a number of years that just happen to be, essentially, harpsichord concertos. Why would such distinct works be listed as one when the Brandenburgs are six?

On another point of pure pedantry, the Pieces de clavecin en concert are listed as ‘Solo instrument’ despite being concertos.

Pedantic asides aside, I do find some of those listings annoyingly inconsistent. It’s not going to hugely detract from the experience and I’m definitely enjoying exploring the music and pondering my voting options. And I look forward to the final countdown with proverbial bate all over my breath. But the consistency would be nice.

As to what I’ll be voting for, the shortlist is still forming but there are some early favourites. I’m somewhat torn when it comes to JS Bach; I want to spread the love among composers again and only vote for one piece each, but that leaves me with deciding between his Cello Suite No 1 and Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The latter has been with me since before I can remember, but the former is breathtakingly beautiful.

Handel is somewhat easier for me. There are parts of two of his oratorios I’d possibly vote for by themselves, but I don’t want to vote for the whole works so they’re out. Which leaves me with his Concerto Grossi Op 6 and Music for Royal Fireworks to decide between.

Vivaldi is another problem; I love The Four Seasons but they’re surely going to do fine as they are – although I predict his Gloria will be his top ranked piece. That leaves me with choosing one of his other pieces, almost certainly a concerto but which one?

Other frontrunners are Corelli’s Concerto Grossi, although I’ve recently discovered his Violin Sonatas and they’re wonderful so there’s another choice. Tartini’s Violin Concerto in G is another recent discovery I’m enjoying immensely.

Hmm. There’s a lot more to be considered. I’ll keep you informed.

Keep exploring!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Baroque Composers II - Buxtehude

Now to look at Dietrich Buxtehude. Like Frescobaldi, I first heard of Buxtehude while reading 1001 Classical Recordings to Hear Before you Die – and again I still haven’t heard said recording, or much of his stuff at all. Coincidentally, I did hear part of his Trio Sonata in C minor on the radio recently and it was a beautiful piece. Then today I heard his setting of the Magnificat which was quite a nice choral piece.

Buxtehude was born in Denmark , where exactly is a contentious subject, but lived most of his life in Germany . Also like Frescobaldi, he was primarily an organist and held the post at Lubeck in northern Germany . Unlike Frescobaldi, most of his keyboard works are specifically for the organ. His organ music was highly influential, having a particular sway over the young Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, Bach took leave from his job and went on a long journey of several months just to hear Buxtehude play.

He also wrote a lot of choral music but much of this is now lost including many oratorios which are thought to have been models for later works by Bach and Telemann. Some shorter works survive and these have had a bit of a revival in modern times. I guess the Magnificat is one of those; there are a number of versions of it on YouTube, here is one by the St Matthias Church Choir, Montreal which seems a good recording. To my ears I guess I can see how it's a proto-Bach but don't ask me to explain that.

I have a similar reaction to some of his organ music. Take this Toccata in D minor (played here on a modern organ by A Schnitger in Norden), it has something of the drama of JS Bach's Toccata in D minor but isn't on the same level. Not that it's attempting the same thing, but while it is a nice piece of music it sounds to me quite basic (I don't mean easy) compared to Bach's work. What I mean is, Buxtehude has the foundations but Bach has built upon them to perfect the form. Perhaps Buxtehude is the giant upon whose shoulders Bach sat but that would be a titan on a giant and liable to squash him. Which may be why Buxtehude is not so well known these days.

A more notable work is his Passacaglia in D minor, which is considered one of his most important. When I hear this I don't think so much of proto-Bach, this is a work of brilliance in its own right. It seems probable it influenced Bach (especially his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor) but its beauty as a piece outweighs any simple role in the evolution of another's music.

I'll finish however with this Trio Sonata in A minor performed by the Boston Museum Trio. It starts out with a melancholic beauty quite remarkable in its emotional intensity for its time then heads into a lively interchange of the three instruments. Chamber music is a wonder and this is a brilliant example of it. Alas, it's from his Opus 1 which can't be voted for in the Classic 100 but his Opus 2 set can. I missed the nomination period so I can't complain on any absences. I'll have to check the Opus 2 set out, if it's as good as this it will definitely be on my shortlist.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Baroque Composers I - Frescobaldi

I’m going to start my survey of Baroque and earlier composers with Frescobaldi for no particular reason. I know the name because of 1001 Classical Recordings to Listen to Before You Die, but, while I’ve found the recording mentioned on Classicsonline, I’ve never listened to it because it’s two hours of harpsichord music and I have trouble listening to that particular keyboard for that long; I may have to work on my tolerance.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque and it seems an important figure in the transition from one to the other, at least in terms of keyboard music. His main job was actually as an organist and he held prominent positions during his lifetime, most notably at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but he also worked for an Archbishop and a Cardinal or two. Surprisingly he didn’t publish much church music however.

His major works are collections of keyboard pieces like Ricercars and Canzones, which were older forms that eventually evolved into Fugues and Sonatas respectively, and a book of liturgical organ music, Fiori musicali. It was highly influential and pieces from it were used in the teaching of counterpoint for at least a century.

He was quite innovative in terms of tempo as well, bringing more colour to instrumental music which had previously been much in the shadow of vocal music. His influence lasted long after his death in 1643 and can be seen in the works of no less than Pachabel, Purcell and JS Bach, who copied the Fiori musicali for his own use – as in he wrote it out note by note so he had his own copy of the score.

Particular note should be made of his two books of Toccatas (1615 and 1627). They follow the same structure but the development in his use of rhythm is indicative of the broadening of instrumental music in the period.

So clearly he was an influential composer, but what is his stuff like to listen too? Looking to YouTube once again I've found a lot of long entries of complete sets rather than individual canzones or toccatas.

I started with his first book of Toccatas performed by Roberto Loreggian, it appears to be disc one of a Brilliant Classics release. Most of the toccatas are played on the harpsichord but the last couple are on the organ and I have to say I really do appreciate the former better now. I can't imagine these pieces being as good on a modern piano either, I think they'd lose a certain amount of warmth and colour. The pieces are highly virtuosic in parts but shift suddenly in tempo quite regularly, it's something of a feature that keeps the listener from becoming bored. The organ pieces didn't really do it for me and sounded somewhat off.

To be honest that's all I've managed to listen to so far and I've been sitting on this blog for over a week. There's more out there though and I'll be getting into it for sure. For now, it's time to move on. Enjoy - and keep exploring!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Initial Thoughts on New Classic 100

I’m back – well, sort of, I expect entries will be more sporadic than before – and so is the Classic 100. This year the theme is Baroque and Before, essentially covering everything written prior to 1750. Which is obviously very broad but I think there are some assumptions we can make.
Despite the huge array of music covered and number of composers, I think it fair to say JS Bach, Handel and Vivaldi will dominate (in that order I predict). The problem being, while other composers’ music is played it isn’t played a lot and it’s tricky to know which piece to vote for.

For example, Telemann is a brilliant composer and well loved. He will no doubt feature several times in the countdown; but I couldn’t tell you what pieces. I’d like to vote for him because I love his music but I have no idea what I’ll pick. I don’t even really know what my options are – besides vast. Or take Dowland, which of his motets or other songs will people vote for – and which piece of Gregorian chant is your favourite?

No doubt many people can answer those questions and they will help determine where some pieces feature but I suspect a lot of people will be in the same position as me and will resort to voting for what they know the names of, hence the likely domination of the big three.
I’m going to do my darndest not to vote for the same composer twice though; as always, I want to spread the love. For JS Bach my big question is which Brandenburg concerto to vote for so I’ll be listening to the Orchestra of the Antipodes recordings again soon. If I’m up to it I may blog about it, we’ll see. The problem with Handel is my favourites of his are movements from oratorios and I don’t want to vote for the whole of Solomon or Xerxes; but there’s always the Royal Fireworks.

Vivaldi is another matter altogether. Beyond his Gloria – which I predict will be in the top 10 – and his Four Seasons, which I predict will suffer from an assumption that everyone else will vote for it and from people wanting to appear ‘sophisticated’ and therefore not voting for such a ‘cliché’, his works suffer the same problem as Telemann’s. We’ve all heard a number of them but can we remember which ones were our favourites? I may just vote for The Four Seasons anyway.
There’s still lots of time to decide of course. Meanwhile I’ll try to do some composer surveys like I did for the French and Movie countdowns.