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.