Bachtoberfest

 

This opening concert of Boulder Bach Festival’s 2017–18 Season is a celebration of the chamber music genres that J.S. Bach knew and influenced. The instrumental ensemble of this program is called a trio, but ironically consists of four musicians (two violins, cello, and organ). The term “trio” results from the scoring: there are two lines for treble instruments, and one for bass, which can be played by a variety of instruments. Most commonly, the treble lines would have been played on violin, flute, or oboe in any combination, and the bass line would have been played by a basso continuo group: one instrument capable of playing only one note at a time (cello, viola da gamba, or bassoon), and at least one capable of playing many notes at a time (harpsichord, organ, lute, or harp), filling in any missing harmonies.

 

The Trio Sonata in B Minor is by George Frideric Handel, a German-born composer who spent most of his life in England (and was born only a month before J.S. Bach). This piece consists of four movements, each of which conveys the same sweet, melancholy effect in completely different ways.

 

Antonio Vivaldi’s Latin-language sacred motet In furore iustissimæ iræ was composed in the 1720s during a visit to Rome, and contains similar structure as the solo cantatas of J.S. Bach. The arias and recitatives in this virtuosic masterpiece first and foremost highlight the text itself. The opening of the first aria explodes in a fury of notes for the strings, which is quickly echoed by the soprano as she sings of divine anger and retribution. Throughout the cantata, Vivaldi uses tremendous leaps, winding chromaticism, and sheer virtuosity to highlight various words; listen particularly for potentem (“power”), mentem (“mind”), languescit (“languish” or “soften”), lætum (“joyful”), and of course, alleluia.

 

The aria Mentiti centers around the pains of tormented love, though it may not seem like it given the cheerful nature of the piece. To get the point across, Vivaldi uses long melismas (many notes for one syllable of text) to paint the text, particularly on amante (“lover”), pene (“pain”), and vibran (“tremble”).

 

Until recently, the Trio Sonata in C Major was attributed to J.S. Bach, but it seems more likely that it was written by one of Bach’s students, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Goldberg was born in Danzig (in present-day Poland) and spent much of his life as the harpsichordist of Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony who suffered from insomnia. Reportedly, Keyserlingk mentioned to Bach that he was looking for some new compositions for Goldberg to perform during his sleepless nights; thus was born the famous Goldberg Variations. Tonight’s Trio Sonata’s first movement consists of heavily ornamented lines with harmonic and contrapuntal writing similar to that of Bach. The second movement is a fugue with two themes; both appear together in the beginning before the organ and cello enter; the first is in descending long notes, the second in ascending short notes. The third movement consists of the typical trio sonata writing, with the two violinists playing a duet, accompanied by the continuo. The final movement is a gigue, a fast rustic dance in which all four of the ensemble members try to outdo the others.

 

The next work was written by Johann Sebastian Bach’s eleventh child, Johann Christian, who was often referred to as “the English Bach”, due to his extensive activities in London. He taught Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who later regarded J.C. Bach as one of his most important influences, and arranged three of J.C. Bach’s keyboard sonatas into concertos. The second of these in G Major consists of two movements that are almost identical to the solo sonata versions, but with harmonic twists, the addition of a cadenza, and enhancements to a few of the variations. It seems likely that the keyboard instrument Mozart intended may have been either a fortepiano or harpsichord, yet the instrumentation and style of the Concerto in G Major is reminiscent of (if not identical to) Mozart’s Church Sonatas, which are essentially short organ concertos that would have accompanied the procession of the Gospel Book.

 

Georg Philipp Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo Violin were published in Hamburg in 1735, and are virtuoso works for unaccompanied violin. Many of the Sonatas incorporate double stops (playing several notes at once), but most are only written for a single line of music, which Telemann ingeniously uses to create the appearance of a duet (as J.S. Bach does in his Violin Partitas). 

 

The final piece on this program comes from Handel’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo, an early work composed around 1706. For many years, the piece was known from church archives to have existed, but the score was lost until 2001, when it was rediscovered in the Royal Academy of Music’s library. In the aria Quoniam, the roles of the soprano and violinist are really equal, resulting, at least stylistically, in a trio sonata. The final portion Cum Sancto Spiritu combines the aria style characteristics of Vivaldi (long melismas on important words) with the virtuosic violin duets of Handel and Goldberg, with a few glimpses of the gallant style that J.C. Bach and Mozart would later make popular.

 

Copyright: Christopher Holman, 2017