MEDIA PARTNER

Friday, June 26, 2015

PROGRAM SCHEDULE  •  SUN 21  •  MON 22  •  WED 24  •  FRI 26  •  SUN 28

Sherman Library & Gardens, Central Patio Room, 8 p.m.

All Bach, All Evening:
Sonatas and Trio Sonatas

David Shostac, flute
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
Gretchen Claassen, violoncello
Gabriel Arregui, harpsichord


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1038

Largo
Vivace
Adagio
Presto


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Italian Concerto, BWV 971
for harpsichord solo

[Allegro]
Andante
Presto


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030
for flute and harpsichord

Andante
Largo e dolce
Allegro
Presto

Intermission

 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonata in E major, BWV 1016
for violin and harpsichord

Adagio
Allegro
Adagio ma non tanto
Allegro


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Prelude from Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
for violoncello solo


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Trio sonata in G major, BWV 1039

Adagio
Allegro ma non presto
Adagio e piano
Presto

 Reception in the Gardens


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Continuing our brief survey of Bach’s chamber music, we start this program with a partial repeat of a piece from Monday evening’s concert — partial in the sense that one of its parts, the bass line, is the same as a bass line from one of Monday’s pieces, the Sonata in G major, BWV 1021. Please see the notes from Monday’s program for a brief discussion of that piece. BACK

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Over recent years we’ve presented you with some quite atypical concertos — ones that don’t behave “normally” with the usual soloist supported by the usual orchestra. We’ve had concertos for orchestra with no soloists; we’ve had concertos for soloists and no orchestra; we’ve (just!) had a concerto for three violins, three violas, three cellos and no orchestra; and now we have a concerto for just one player! I was astonished to find that this wonderful piece, the Italian Concerto, has had scorn heaped over it from high-ranking Bach scholars right and left.

Their objections seem to boil down to the complaints that it is formally too simple to be truly worthy of the master, and that it attempts to win praise by being “popular.” One even suggests that it imitates the (implicitly inferior) works of the Graun brothers — God forbid! But as musicologist Federico Garcia suggests in his 2004 paper, The Nature of Bach’s Italian Concerto, “Bach might have been driven by the very interesting possibilities, the techniques, and the challenges of ‘playing the orchestra’ from the keyboard.” And why ever not?

The outer movements are bright and crisp, and utilize the different dynamic and tonal properties of the harpsichord’s upper and lower manual to help draw distinctions between “tutti” ritornelli and “solo” passages. The slow movement is somewhat reminiscent of the middle movement of the D minor harpsichord concerto, an extended “aria” with a simple accompaniment under a garlanded melodic line, though the mood is more pensive and far less tortured. The final movement returns us to brilliance and to the expected alternation of ritornello themes with solo episodes. BACK

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While we are pretty sure of the authorship and dates of composition for a fair number of Bach’s works — thanks to our knowledge of the demands of his job at any point, knowledge about the performers he had near him, knowledge of dates of presentation or publication of scores, and invaluable commentary by various of his sons and students — there are still some areas of murkiness that may never be conclusively resolved. Bach’s sonatas for flute and harpsichord may well occupy one of the darkest zones of murk, fraught with differing scholarly opinions, each weighing the same scanty and oblique evidence, and drawing different conclusions.

As I mentioned in Monday’s notes, Bach had a habit (helpful to musicologists!) of organizing his chamber works into tidy and comprehensive sets of six; alas, this did not happen with the flute sonatas. Happily, the B Minor Sonata on our program is one of the two works for flute upon which scholars can agree. It is definitely the work of Bach, was based on an earlier version in G minor likely composed between 1729 and 1732, and was transposed up a third to B minor sometime before 1736.

Why would Bach have transposed the piece upwards? There is a very intriguing speculation by musicologist Christopher Addington that he updated this very demanding sonata for the French flute virtuoso Buffardin. Buffardin came to work in Dresden, a court in which Bach was attempting to find favor, and it is known that Buffardin performed on the French flute, which employed precisely this transpostion. Some of Bach’s music composed relatively late in his life verges toward the galant in style; I’m tempted to suggest that the flute’s charming and complaisant tonal qualities, galant almost in themselves, may have encouraged Bach to work the more au courante style into his composerly skill set. This sonata features the harpsichord mostly in its equal obbligato role, with no figures for the performer to improvise on, but rather a fully written-out part for both hands. That said, the written-out part for the middle movement does not partake of thematic elements, and is essentially a spectacular basso continuo realization.

The sonata opens very much as it goes on, in a coolly florid vein. The second movement may perhaps remind listeners of the Goldberg Variations theme, both because of its simple AABB form and by its awesome sweetness. The third movement is a lively and rigorously developed Presto, which seems demanding enough, but is nonetheless trumped by a second, even quicker section full of diabolically tricky chromatics and syncopations. BACK

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On Monday, we presented Bach’s sonata for violin and obbligato harpsichord in C minor, one of a set of six such sonatas. Tonight we offer another sonata from this set, the third, in E major.

The opening Adagio features a chordal accompaniment in the right hand of the harpsichord that supports a rhapsodic, soaring violin line. Such a strict accompanimental role for the harpsichord is rare in these sonatas, as the focus is more usually on equality of line for the three voices (violin, harpsichord right hand, and harpsichord left hand). This movement is a grand exception! The rich, repetitive stateliness of the harpsichord parts stand in great contrast to the highly expressive, highly ornamented, free-ranging violin line; the combination suggests a monumental vista of earth and huge vault of sky, magnificent and moving.

One could hardly be returned more shockingly to the mundane than by the second movement, an exercise in imitative lines whose principal theme has the simplicity of a child’s playground song. Yet another depth is sounded in the third movement, dominated by doleful falling lines in the bass coupled with hopefully rising lines which then fall back in dejection. The meander of these lines is so compelling that the piece feels almost as if it were a through-composed, formless, stream-of-consciousness sort of thing, but analysis reveals its underlying rational formal structure, hidden as it were, in plain view.

The substantial closing movement is in ABA form, the A being musical champagne fizzing away madly in 16th notes, and the B cantering to mellower triplets. An almost comical tension ensues as energetic A attempts to intrude into B’s more easy-going space, eventually succeeding in dragging B into her whirlwind. BACK

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The Prelude to the fifth Suite for Solo Cello is remarkable in scope and effect. It opens with a marvellously growly Adagio section, dolorous in the extreme, a perfect articulation of deep melancholy, a perfect balance of harmonic narrative and melodic embellishment. A sober but active fugue follows, with the necessary alternations between thematic exposition and episodic development. It is ended by a musical rhetorical device called an abruptio (a sudden and unpredictable halt to the musical action), after which something resembling the opening character attempts to reappear, but manages to conclude on an almost-sweet major chord. BACK

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O ur closing trio, somewhat like our opening trio, exists as a solo sonata as well as a trio sonata, the solo version being for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord. The first movement is sweetly unhurried, the second picks up a bit of energy, but is really still quite contented just to jog along in a friendly fashion. Pay attention to the opening theme: the second section of the movement presents it again, but upside down!

The third movement is made largely of a short, simple rising repetitive motive shared by the flute and violin, and a tenderly mournful but fairly conventional movement proceeds until the harmonies abruptly take a wincingly sharp turn. Tenderness and wincing alternate for a bit, till a deceptive cadence lands us in a pedal point; the repetitive motive is taken over exclusively by the flute, and, driven by a wondrous and eerie succession of harmonies, is gradually distorted until it collapses upon itself, and magically resolves.

The Presto is a wild ride in which all three lines grab hold of the same thematic elements, and run with, against, around, and into each other, duelling, jostling and teasing one another all the way, concluding with boundless good humor. BACK

Notes by Elizabeth Blumenstock

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