Program Notes for 19 & 20 September 2009

Trio Sonata in C major, nach BWV 1032................................................................................... Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Vivace
Largo e dolce
Allegro

recorder and obbligato harpsichord

Sonata in D minor.................................................................................................................................. Carl Friedrich Abel (1725-1787)
[Allegro]
Adagio
Allegro

viola da gamba

 

Konzert in A minor....................................................................................................................... Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Andante
Allegro
Largo
Allegro assai

recorder, violin, harpsichord, and basso continuo

 

***intermission***

Two Sonatas ....................................................................................................................................................Marco Uccellini (c. 1603-1680)
op. 4/2, “La Luciminia contenta”
op. 5/3

violin and basso continuo

L’Espagnole, from Les Nations ..........................................................................................................François Couperin (1668-1733)
[Sonade]: gravement, et mesuré—vivement—affectuëusement—légérement—gayëment—air tendre—vivement, et marqué
Allemande: gracieusement
Courante: noblement
Sarabande: gravement
Bourée and Double: gayëment

oboe, violin, and basso continuo

 

Program Notes

Contrast was, starting in the early 17 th century, a significantly desirable trait for artists—composers, painters, poets—to cultivate in their works. More particularly, in music of that time, all facets—texture, harmony, rhythm, melody, dynamics, tempo, not to mention text, if there was one—could change on a dime, unpredictably and without warning. By the late Baroque, these changes were usually more tightly harnessed, but certainly not absent. Freedom from metrical restraint, from rules of harmony and part-writing, and from established patterns might alternate with their strict application. Abstracted, these two faces of the Baroque might be called spontaneity and control.

The earliest pieces on our program are two sonatas, both published in the 1640s, by Marco Uccellini. We have little information on the composer except that he worked in Modena and Parma. None of his operas and ballets is extant, but we do have seven collections of his instrumental music. In these, he demonstrated a fondness for challenging the violinist, often inserting slurs and tremolos and very quick divisions of the beat, and requiring an agile bow arm. Otherwise, our two selections could hardly be more dissimilar. Op. 4/2 fairly exudes the confidence of a composer who has discovered how to draw his listeners from one unbridled passion to another. Even in the last few notes, Uccellini can’t resist offering one more harmonic jab. In comparison, op. 5/3 seems serene, balanced as it is for most of its length over a repeating bass line. Yet op. 4/2 ends as it began, thus being tamed, as it were; while in op.5/3 the variations become increasingly demanding, and the piece ends freely, with only a few gentle reminders of what preceded. Spontaneity and control have had a hand in both sonatas, to be sure, but to different degrees.

François Couperin was influenced by the Italian sonata, but not that of Uccellini’s era. He was, rather, an admirer of Corelli’s works, which had created a storm of interest and had resulted in numerous derivatives in France in the late 17 th century. In stated French opinions, brilliance, liveliness, and fugal writing were labeled as Italian, while subtlety and tenderness remained the forte of the French. During the 1690s, Couperin wrote and circulated several trio sonatas under an assumed name, an Italianized anagram of his own (Pernucio). Like Corelli’s sonatas—and, indeed, like Uccellini’s, but more leisurely—Couperin’s early attempts are sectional, moving between various tempos and meters and textures. Later, he reused these trios as opening movements for three of his four larger pieces printed in 1726 as Les Nations. A series of dances follows the opening “sonade”—a Gallic version of the word “sonata.” It’s simplistic to say that Couperin’s sonata represents the Italian style, while the dances represent the French, but that’s the general idea. You’ll notice, though, that there’s a very French “air tendre” in the sonata. We should mention that the label “Spanish” seems to have little or nothing to do with the style of this suite.

Three German-born composers, all from the late Baroque, occupy the first half of our program. Among them, Bach is the best known today, Telemann was the best known during his lifetime, and Abel was known even while he lived as the last of his breed. Our selections by these three are sonatas, though their titles differ.

J. S. Bach composed at least eleven trio sonatas of a new-fangled type, in which one of the solo lines is carried by the keyboardist’s right hand. A written-out keyboard part like this is called an obbligato part—that is, it’s obligatory that the keyboardist play it more or less as written, instead of improvising over a bass line. A solo instrument bears the other upper part, while the keyboardist’s left hand plays the basso continuo, or the accompaniment. There are two authentic flute sonatas of this type by Bach, and we’ve transposed that originally in A major into C major to make it more accessible for the recorder. All three movements, which are in contrasting tempos, meters, and melodies, are full of fugal writing, and even the continuo line sometimes participates in the imitative texture. The outside movements seem quite closely controlled, while the second movement more obviously exhibits elements of fantasy, encouraging relatively free and expressive moments.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s trio sonata in some performances would be the same sort as Bach’s: a flute sonata with obbligato harpsichord. But the composer states that a violin may play the right-hand keyboard part, leaving only the bass line for the harpsichordist with a cello, or for the cello alone. We’re using neither a flute nor a cello, the recorder taking the flute line and the viola da gamba the bass line. Like Bach, Telemann charged all four movements with bits of imitation, sometimes involving the bass line. Typically, the slow movements allow for more flights of fancy than the fast movements. Telemann published six trio sonatas of this type in 1734, along with six suites, also trios, that similarly permitted various scorings, and all twelve of these works offer striking musical ideas and clever treatments of them. In the A minor sonata, you’ll especially notice the third movement, in which the harpsichord doubles the violin and the viola da gamba while adding its own part, producing a hybrid timbre and simulating a larger ensemble.

The last of our Germans, from a family of gambists, emigrated to England in 1758. In 1765 Carl Friedrich Abel joined with J. S. Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, to oversee the popular Bach-Abel concerts, one of the first subscription concert series, which lasted until 1781. Abel remained an active composer and freelance performer, well-known to everyone, until his death. One of his close friends was the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who also was a fine gambist. Though Abel embraced the new “classic” style, he was one of the last composers for the by then old-fashioned viola da gamba. His solo viol works show the finesse and prowess he—and perhaps Gainsborough as well—must have possessed as a performer, for they are musically and technically demanding. With no continuo and no competing instrument, they hold great potential for eloquence. In our selection, the first Allegro is in fact much like a prelude, somewhat improvisatory, setting the stage for the rest of the piece. Musical ideas appear, disappear, and reappear, the first ones returning at the end, but each motive seems to claim its own space and time. The Adagio, too, sounds unrestrained, with a cadenza at the end. Only the last movement is more regular, and even that one is oddly strewn with interruptions. Abel’s viol, considered an obsolete instrument by 1787, was buried with him.

 

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