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.