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.
“Why should the devil have all the good music?” It’s a quote that has been incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, among others. But Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, Palestrina, and other composers in the late Renaissance actually put this idea into practice in the form of the Parody Mass. The Parody Mass borrowed from pre-existing music, often motets and secular chanson. Composers at the time commonly stole and adapted melodies the way jazz musicians do today.
In Missa Entre vous filles (1581), Lassus based his Kyrie on a raunchy, lustful, and sexually explicit French chanson by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510-1556?) called Entre vous filles de quinze ans (listen to the song here). Listening to Lassus’ liturgical adaptation, you would never guess the melody’s origin. Dusted off and dressed in church clothes, it becomes completely new music. Lassus was able to develop this existing seed into a profound musical statement.
Notice the imitative counterpoint between voices, present from the beginning, and the rich, sensuous harmony. This gradually unfolding music is more about the moment than a far off goal. It’s interesting to consider the similarities between Lassus’ music, written over 400 years ago, and the music of contemporary composers like Ēriks Ešenvalds and Arvo Pärt.
Find this recording of Orlande de Lassus’ Missa Entre vous filles on iTunes, Amazon
Conductor, harpsichordist, and early music scholar Christopher Hogwood passed away last week at the age of 73. He was an influential advocate of authentic performance practice and the use of period instruments. He helped pioneer a movement which attempted to recreate the original sound and style of baroque and classical music. In 1973 he founded the Cambridge, England-based Academy of Ancient Music. You can explore a collection of his lectures here and view a catalogue of his extensive writing and recordings here. His approach to music, which emphasized musicology, is summed up in the follow quote:
Every piece of music should be looked at as a painting that dissolved off the wall when you closed the gallery door. If all the colors dripped down into a huge pot and you took this pot, along with a recipe of how to reassemble the colors back into Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ you would be very careful to get all the reds and the yellows in the right places, and not to paint it bigger or smaller than it was. I think music carries with it this responsibility.
A comparison of Hogwood’s period performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Romantic 1954 interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler demonstrates how different the same music can sound, depending on the philosophy of the performer.
Let’s listen to Christopher Hogwood’s sparkling and stylish recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 with the Academy of Ancient Music. The performance features harpsichord and period instruments tuned to a slightly lower “A” than we’re used to.
Beethoven’s first two symphonies are his most youthful and classical, but listen carefully and you’ll hear hints of explosive, revolutionary sounds to come. The music was shocking enough to elicit the following description from a Viennese critic following the premiere:
“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.
You may also notice the kind of humor we rarely associate with Beethoven. While the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn commonly featured stately minuets for the third movement, Beethoven began writing scherzos. The word “scherzo” literally translates as “joke.” Notice the musical cat and mouse games and sudden interruptions which occur between instruments in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony.
The comically boisterous opening of the final movement is like a loud guest who attracts attention at a party for all the wrong reasons. It’s an outburst which opens the door to a spirited and simultaneously ferocious romp. As the motives are tossed around and developed, notice the way they become increasingly compressed between 29:11 and 29:25. Strangely, this movement contains subtle premonitions of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony (31:55). Then there’s the eerie intensity of that moment in the coda where everything drops out except for the string tremolo. What follows may be the biggest joke of all.
Franz Joseph Haydn was employed in London during the final years of his life. Symphony No. 104 in D major is the last of twelve “London Symphonies”. Here is a live performance with Christopher Hogwood: