Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may be the most recorded piece ever written, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another great new addition to the catalogue. The newest contribution comes from Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes who has just released a Four Seasons disc with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the Onyx Classics label. It’s always fun to hear different approaches to these famous Vivaldi concertos, some using baroque instruments and performance practice. Here, you’ll hear a full-toned, modern approach to the music. The recording also features Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, as well as Leclair’s “Tambourin” Sonata, accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong.
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was the greatest French violinist of the eighteenth century, “the Corelli of France.” Listen to the rich array of tonal colors and the intimate conversation which takes place between the violin and piano in the third movement of the Leclair, Sarabanda: Largo:
Leclair’s Op. 9, No. 3 violin sonata gets its nickname from this fun, folk dance-inspired final movement:
Finally, just in time for winter, here is the icy chill of the first movement of “Winter” from The Four Seasons:
British choral conductor, organist and composer Sir David Willcocks passed away yesterday. He was 95. Between 1957 and 1974, Willcocks directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. His numerous recordings with that ensemble showcase its distinct sound, which relies on the lightness and purity of boy sopranos. Between 1974 and 1984, Willcocks served as administrative director of the Royal College of Music in London. As a young man, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the Battle of Normandy during the Second World War.
Here is Sir David Willcocks’ 1963 recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Based on texts from the King James Bible, these anthems were first performed for the coronation of George II at Westminster Abbey on October 11, 1727. It’s hard to imagine any music more celebratory, regal, or majestic.
There’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 500 times. Vivaldi’s own performances were undoubtedly infused with a virtuosic freedom and sense of spontaneity that grew out of improvisation and ornamentation. Robbed of these elements, modern performances of Vivaldi can sometimes sound formulaic, like bland elevator music.
But if you want to hear just how exciting and adventurous Vivaldi’s music can be, listen to the edge-of-your-seat period playing of Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. A few weeks ago, Sinkovsky appeared with Belgian baroque ensemble B’Rock (Baroque Orchestra Ghent) at the BBC Proms (Listen to that concert here). Notice the stunning virtuosity in the cadenza of the Violin Concerto in D major, RV 208 ‘Grosso Mogul,’ towards the end of the concert.In moments like this, Sinkovsky perfectly captures the fun-loving abandon of this music.
Below is Dmitry Sinkovsky’s 2012 recording, Concerti per Violino “Per Pisendel” with Il Pomo d’Oro. He talks about the recording here. Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) was a German violinist and composer who led the Court Orchestra of Dresden. Pisendel studied with Vivaldi around 1716 and received the dedication of several of Vivaldi’s scores.
Concerto for Violin, Strings and B.C. in C major RV 177, which opens the recording, explodes with an almost Stravinsky-like punch and some jarring dissonances (0:40). At moments, Sinkovsky’s tone takes on a strikingly vocal quality, interspersed with percussive effects (3:50). The D major concerto which follows (RV 212a) features an extended cadenza, which daringly cycles through a series of keys (beginning at 17:22).
Alan Curtis, American harpsichordist, musicologist, and conductor of baroque opera, passed away suddenly on Wednesday in Florence, Italy. He was 80.
Curtis leaves behind many groundbreaking recordings, including harpsichord music by J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and French keyboard masters like Rameau and Louis Couperin. Curtis founded the European period orchestra Il Complesso Barocco. With that ensemble he recorded numerous works, including an extensive catalogue of Handel operas.
Let’s listen to Alan Curtis perform Prelude, Courante, and Passacaille in G minor by Louis Couperin (c. 1626-1661). Notice the way the Passacaille (beginning at 5:25), constructed on a repeating, descending four-note bass line, gradually becomes increasingly complex and far-reaching after its relatively simple opening. As the intensity builds, fasten your seat belt for some extraordinarily wild dissonances around the 8:18 mark. Also, listen closely to the luscious pandiatonicchord at 8:50, a sound that would be at home in a contemporary pop song.
Italian Baroque composers such as Corelli, Tartini, and Vivaldi have long been associated with the early development of the violin as a virtuoso instrument. Less well known, now, is Francesco Maria Veracini. Born in Florence in 1690, Veracini traveled throughout Europe, dazzling audiences with his violin sonatas and concertos. The English composer and music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) described Veracini’s playing in 1745:
He led the band…in such a bold and masterly manner as I had never heard before…The peculiarities in his performance were his bow and, his shake [trill], his learned arpeggios, and a tone so loud and clear, that it could be distinctly heard through the most numerous band of a church or theatre.
Suzuki violin students will recognize this Gigue from Veracini’s Sonata No. 7 in D minor. Suzuki included it towards the end of Book 5. Here is a thrilling period performance by violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi. Notice Biondi’s spirited ornamentation:
If you’ve been griping about taxes recently, you may sympathize with the characters in J.S. Bach’s secular Peasant Cantata, BWV212, first performed in 1742. Bach referred to this popular, comic work as “Cantate burlesque.” Listen to the entire work here.
In this excerpt, Ach, Herr Schösser, geht gar nicht zu schlimm, the farmer decries the unfair burden of land taxes. Here is a translation, beginning with the preceding recitative:
The master is good: but the tax collector
comes straight out of hell.
Quick as a lightning flash he can slap a new tax on land-us
harm the very moment we’ve just got out of hot water.
Ah.Mr tax- collector, Do not Be Too Hard
with us poor peasants.
Leave us our skin.
Eat up the cabbage
Like the caterpiilars to the bare stalk.
That Should Be enough!
Here is Christopher Hogwood and the The Academy of Ancient Music with David Thomas (bass) and Emma Kirkby (soprano):
Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Illinois medical school discovered that the 103 beat-per-minute pulse of the Bee Gees’ 1977 disco hit Stayin’ Aliveprovided the perfect tempo for resuscitating the heart through CPR. From the satisfying groove of a disco or techno beat to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, musical rhythm has long been tied to our internal rhythm. Pulse is what makes music come alive.
In Renaissance and Baroque music, tempo often grew out of divisions of the heartbeat. Listen to Handel’s Water Music and see if you can feel this sense of heartbeat. Then, listen to a few more pieces which are directly tied to the heartbeat:
Hector Berlioz described the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 this way:
As for the adagio, it defies analysis… So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view. From the very first bars one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. It is only among one of the giants of poetry that it is possible to find something to compare to this sublime movement from the giant of music. Nothing resembles more the impression made by this adagio than the feelings one experiences when reading the touching episode of Francesca di Rimini in the Divina Commedia, the narrative of which Virgil cannot hear without bursting into tears, and which at the last verse causes Dante to fall, just as a dead body collapses. This movement seems to have been breathed by the archangel Michael when, seized with a fit of melancholy, he contemplated the universe, standing on the threshold of the empyrean.
The persistent musical heartbeat which runs throughout the movement begins quietly in second violins. As the first violins enter with their singing melody (0:20), notice that this underlying heartbeat motive remains. We might be tempted to write it off as insignificant rhythmic filler, but it’s too relentlessly insistent. Then, suddenly, this motive explodes into the foreground, played by the entire orchestra (1:03) in a powerful unison.
As the movement progresses, listen to the way the heartbeat moves around the orchestra from the double bass and cello (3:38) to the solo bassoon (6:16) to the tympani (10:37):
In the fourth song of Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24, published in 1840, the repetitive sound of the heartbeat is compared to the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin. Here is a translation of the dark text by Heinrich Heine.
The second movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 1 opens with a heartbeat rhythm. A similar rhythm can be heard in the opening of his Nocturne No. 7 in C-sharp major, Op. 74.
Here is a live 2013 performance at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall by violinist Giora Schmidt and pianist Rohan De Silva. This is such a great performance that I couldn’t resist including the entire piece. The second movement begins at 9:56:
Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) depict failing heartbeats and the inevitable approach of death. Leonard Bernstein heard a similar failing heartbeat in the opening of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in 1907, four years before his death. The Ninth Symphony, written between 1908 and 1909, was the last symphony Mahler completed. At moments, it veers sharply towards the world of atonality. While the opening movement is centered in D major, the final movement ends a half step lower in D-flat. The heartbeat motive, heard at the opening of the first movement, returns later in the development section in an ominous fortissimo:
Let’s finish up in the late twentieth century world of electronic music. Hungarian composer Zoltán Pongrácz’s 1972 tape piece, Mariphonia manipulates recorded sound, including the human heartbeat (5:39). The progressive rock band Pink Floyd used a similar recorded heartbeat on the album, The Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1973.