Program Notes for 11& 12 November 2006

1 e Concert, in G major, from Concerts Royaux........................................................................... François Couperin (1668-1733)
Prélude: Gravement
Allemande: Légérement
Sarabande: Mesuré
Gavotte: Notes égales et coulées
Gigue: Légérement
Menuet en trio

oboe, violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord

 

Duettos (originally for organ), from Clavierübung III............................................................. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
BWV 804, in G major
BWV 803, in F major

violin, viola da gamba

 

Sonata in E b major .................................................................................................Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Largo
Vivace
Mesto
Allegro

oboe, obbligato harpsichord, basso continuo

 

***Intermission***

 

Sonata in G major.......................................................................................................................................................... Bach
Adagio
Allegro, ma non tanto
Andante
Allegro moderato

viola da gamba, obbligato harpsichord

 

Sonata in c minor (originally for flute)........................................................................... Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Poco adagio
Allegro
Allegro

recorder

 

Trio sonata in B b major, op. 2/3 ...........................................................................................George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Andante
Allegro
Larghetto
Allegro

oboe, violin, basso continuo

For the first course, a.k.a. September concert, of our musical banquet, we served up a variety of musical appetizers by relatively unfamiliar composers. Having thus whetted your appetite, we’re back with potages et poissons –or, translated from the language of haute cuisine, soups and fish. Because soup is the quintessential comfort food for many of us, we’ve chosen a program of music by familiar and well-loved Baroque composers including Bach, Handel, and Telemann. Some of the best soups, of course, are rich and substantial as well as comforting – as is, we believe, the music on this weekend’s menu.

But first, les poissons! In keeping with our Francophone concert theme, we open with a suite by François Couperin. And if we may indulge in a bit of cross-cultural speculation, we might note some resemblances between a French suite and the sushi trays that our gentlemen’s auxiliary will be serving at intermission: each could be described as a harmonious array of exquisitely colorful, tasteful, and tasty miniatures. Any such admittedly-fanciful notions aside, our Couperin selection is a suite in the classic French manner, comprising a prelude and five dances and probably intended as entertainment for the aging Louis XIV. Except for the closing minuet “en trio,” this first Concert royal is scored for an unspecified treble instrument with basso continuo; Couperin states in his preface that these pieces may be played on harpsichord as well as on violin, oboe, flute, viol, or bassoon. We’ve chosen to maximize the coloristic possibilities by using a different combination of instruments for each movement. And, to return one last time to the gastronomic metaphor, much of the special flavor of these pieces comes from the many agréments, or ornaments, prescribed by the composer.

Despite the rather arbitrary potages/poissons, or German/French, dichotomy implied by the above, we certainly don’t want to suggest that Couperin’s music lacks richness or substance. He’s become one of our favorites and, we hope, one of our audience’s favorites as well. Yet we do tend to regard French Baroque music as somehow on the margins of the canon; its somewhat static and stylized character might be taken, unfairly, for a lack of depth. In contrast, it’s almost axiomatic that the music of J.S. Bach is of inexhaustible depth. Surely no Baroque composer has inspired more speculation as to possible hidden meanings in his music. A case in point is the four Duettos from the third part of the Clavierübung (roughly, “Keyboard exercise;” while the Duettos’ intended participants are probably the two manuals of the organ, they lend themselves equally well to other treble-bass combinations. We perform them here on violin and viola da gamba). Because the rest of Clavierübung III comprises a Lutheran organ mass, it’s been suggested that the Duettos represent, for example, the four Gospels, or perhaps Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Or they may have served to fill blank spaces on existing pages of music. Whatever their esoteric significance, or lack thereof, these are masterpieces of contrapuntal technique and musical expression. BWV 804, in G major and in a gentle 12/8 meter, is deceptively childlike in character and is reminiscent of the two-part inventions well-known to pianists and piano students. BWV 803, in ABA form, begins as a straightforward fugue whose subject clearly outlines an F-major triad –but then, in the middle section, feels briefly bitonal at times. Chromaticism and stretti (closely-spaced fugal entrances) give rise to eerie harmonic shifts, from which the F-major subject finally re-emerges.

Our other Bach selection, the G-major sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is the composer’s own reworking of a trio sonata for two flutes and continuo; the second flute part, now filling an alto/tenor role in the trio texture, is given to the gamba, while the harpsichordist plays the soprano and bass lines. While Bach inherited the 4-movement (slow—fast—slow—fast) sonata da chiesa (“church sonata”) form from Arcangelo Corelli, he takes the form well beyond its Italian origins. For example, a Corellian adagio tends to be quite plain, demanding more or less elaborate improvisations on the part of the performer. In Bach’s sonata, the opening Adagio is densely contrapuntal, despite its rather gentle, pastoral character –not unlike that of the G-major Duetto. The fugal fast movements are also more complex than anything in their Italian models; in the second movement, for example, the theme appears in inversion (i.e., ascending intervals become descending ones and vice versa). Yet these irresistible fugues carry their learning lightly.

The sonata for melody instrument and obbligato harpsichord is one of many trio-sonata textures that we’ve explored over the years –including the more prototypical examples for treble instruments and basso continuo, as well as Bach’s trios for solo organ (2 manuals plus pedal), some of which we’ve arranged for two, three, or four instruments. Leave it to the always amazing Georg Philipp Telemann to come up with yet another possibility! Telemann’s Essercizii musici, a compendium of sonatas and trio sonatas for a variety of instruments, includes four trios for melody instrument with obbligato harpsichord and continuo –hence the two harpsichords that you see on the stage. In these trios –we’re performing the one with oboe– the obbligato harpsichord sometimes doubles the continuo line, but the overall texture is that of a true trio sonata. Incidentally, Telemann claimed to have mastered all of the instruments represented in the Essercizii: violin, oboe, flute, recorder, viola da gamba, and harpsichord, and he provides abundant technical and musical challenges for all. The oboe writing in this trio brings out many of that instrument’s characteristic qualities: warm and lyrical in the first movement, dark and melancholy in the third, trumpet-like in the fourth.

We’ve spoken thus far about two- and three-part textures and have noted the prevalence of counterpoint, particularly in the music of J.S. Bach. As we know from Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin and unaccompanied cello, a single line can also create the illusion of counterpoint, with contiguous notes seeming to belong to separate voices. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel achieves this implied-counterpoint effect in his solo flute sonata, here transposed up a minor third and performed on recorder. The second movement is perhaps the most “Baroque”-sounding of the three, but the entire sonata bears C.P.E. Bach’s distinctive stamp as well. Frequent dynamic changes, especially in the opening Poco adagio, are hallmarks of his Empfindsamerstil, or “sensitive style;” moreover, the wide-ranging melodies and wide melodic leaps serve an expressive as well as a contrapuntal purpose.

We conclude with another trio sonata by another well-known and much-loved master. Handel’s opus 2, from which our selection is taken, comprises six sonatas for two violins and continuo; the first published edition names flutes and oboes –the young Handel’s favorite instrument, according to one story– as alternatives. While Handel’s reputation stands more on his operas and oratorios than on his instrumental music, and while much of the latter is probably spurious, the opus-2 set contains some of his finest (and most reliably authenticated) music for chamber ensemble. These trios, like the Bach gamba sonata, are Italianate sonate da chiesa, tending perhaps more than Bach toward the melody-dominated galant style (the two treble parts often move in parallel). The second movement is, once again, a fugue in which the continuo also participates, and a delightfully witty finale closes out this second course of our musical banquet.

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