Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Our evening of Baroque music begins with an early work by the most celebrated English composer of the era, Henry Purcell. Purcell displayed his musical talent at a young age, and at the earliest opportunity—possibly even on his eighteenth birthday—King Charles II appointed him composer for the Twenty-Four Violins, a court ensemble featuring all members of the violin family. The Chaconne in G minor (also called “Chacony”) was written around 1680, most likely for this ensemble. Like most chaconnes, this one features a short, repeated bass line, in this case eight measures long. Despite the rigidity of the form, Purcell finds imaginative ways to prevent the piece from becoming repetitive. After establishing a harmonic pattern for several cycles, he throws in new chords that still work with the provided bass. He also varies which instruments carry the repeated figure, allowing the cellos some freedom before they resume their expected role for the conclusion.
The heart of tonight’s performance is three works by Antonio Vivaldi, all coming from a point in his career when his fame had spread beyond the orphanage in Venice where he served as a priest. In 1711, he published a set of twelve concertos under the title L’estro armonico, or “Harmonic Inspiration.” This collection circulated throughout Europe; in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach studied the concertos and transcribed a few for keyboard. Such was not the case for the second concerto in the collection, the Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 578. Nevertheless, the Adagio e spiccato will probably sound familiar—Vivaldi recycled this idea for a more famous work, which appears later on tonight’s program. The ensemble (or ripieno) trudges along, building dissonant harmonies. The only indication that this work features a group of soloists (collectively called the concertino) comes near the end of the movement, when a pair of violins briefly separate from the group for a few turning figures. This distinction becomes more apparent in the blazing Allegro—after ripieno runs and leaps with syncopations, the two violins of the concertino fiddle away on their own. Later, one of the violins breaks off with a solo cello, echoing its line just two beats behind. Passages with various combinations of soloists alternate with ripieno outbursts, until a few elegant trills close out the movement. The Larghetto features blatant contrasts of volume achieved by two methods: the halting phrases of the melody are sometimes marked with abrupt dynamic changes, and sometimes the ensemble drops out suddenly, leaving only the concertino. The Allegro finale rolls forward with a buoyant, dance-like melody. Although the key remains minor, the mood is pastoral, switching between ripieno expressions of the main theme and nimble concertino passages.
Once Vivaldi became sufficiently famous, he began receiving commissions from nobles across Europe who wanted to have fashionable Italian music in their own courts. The Four Seasons was part of a larger collection of twelve concertos commissioned by the Bohemian count Václav Morzin and published in 1725. Their enduring popularity may be due to their programmatic nature—they depict specific non-musical ideas that remain familiar to today’s listeners. Vivaldi makes his “program” explicit by including a sonnet with each of the concertos; he inscribed lines of poetry directly onto the corresponding passages of the musical score. While not certain, evidence indicates that Vivaldi wrote the sonnets himself. When listening to “L’inverno” (Winter), RV 297 tonight, you may experience déjà vu, as the bleak opening of the Allegro non molto borrows from the first movement of the previous work on the program. Here, the repeated notes of the ensemble suggest freezing, with tight trills evoking shivers. The solo violin’s violent outburst depicts a chilling wind, setting off a bout of foot stomping to warm up. The cold persists, and the violins’ teeth chatter, prompting more stomping. The Largo evokes the contentment of warming next to a fire; the soloist’s melody meanders as the rest of the violins play pizzicato to depict the pleasant popping of the flames. The movement is very short, however, and the final Allegro thrusts back outside to tread carefully on the ice. Vivaldi portrays the slipperiness of the surface and the inevitable fall, followed by the ice cracking. The cruel winds return, blasting the concerto to its conclusion.
Returning to Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico, we next hear the eighth concerto of the set, the Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, RV 522. This one was later transcribed by Bach to become an organ concerto, his BWV 593. The Allegro begins with two strident chords and a plummeting scale. From here, the theme cycles through a series of brief gestures, each lasting only a few measures: tight turns, arpeggios, and rocking slurs. The solo violins distinguish themselves with embellished lines that often feature bariolage, a technique of rapid string crossings. Their intricate lines interlock for thrilling effect. In the second movement, Larghetto e spiritoso, a repeated rhythm forms the backdrop for the soloists’ lyrical melodies. As the movement unfurls, the harmonies of the accompaniment subtly drift from the established pattern. The violins’ lines overlap, then intertwine, then fold back into the rest of the ensemble. The Allegro finale is anchored by repeated statements of a stern theme based on descending scales. In contrast to the austere theme, the soloists deploy a series of dazzling effects, from soaring melodies to bariolage across three strings.
The concert concludes with the “Christmas” Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 by Arcangelo Corelli. Unlike Vivaldi’s “Winter,” this piece does not have an explicit program that relates to its title. Instead, the name refers to a note on the score saying, “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (“Made for Christmas Night”). Evidence suggests that it was performed on Christmas in 1690, shortly after he began working for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the grandnephew of Pope Alexander VIII. The concerto grosso remained unpublished until 1714, the year after Corelli’s death, when it was included in a collection of twelve concertos. It features six movements, some with several tempo indications, making the concerto feel like a series of many short, contrasting vignettes. The Vivace portion of the first movement lasts only a few measures, briskly establishing the key. The ensuing Grave section builds dissonant layers through suspensions, a harmonic technique that appears throughout the concerto—some instruments hold onto their pitches even after the others have moved onto the next harmony, creating a clash that delays its resolution. The same technique of suspension can be heard between the two solo violins in the second movement, Allegro. Beneath the violins, the solo cello moves with a steady walking figure, and the ensemble (ripieno) interjects at the ends of phrases. The third movement is in ternary form, breaking into three sections: a tranquil Adagio with pleasant exchanges between ripieno and concertino, a bustling Allegro with relentless first violins, and a reprise of the Adagio. The fourth movement, Vivace, features a dance-like triple meter with a call-and-response between concertino and ripieno. In the vigorous Allegro, the solo violins chase each other as the ripieno brings each phrase to a stern ending. This movement leads directly into the Largo finale, the Pastorale. This is the only movement pertaining to the Christmas story, as its drone pitches and gently rolling melody evoke the shepherds watching their flocks by night.