Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Return of Classical Wednesdays I

By actual requests -- of which there was more than one! -- Classical Wednesdays returns with a new round of recommendations for your listening pleasure.

The Baroque Era

Before I wrote the Classical Wednesdays series, I thought I had an roughly even mix in my collection of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century music. I was wrong! Turns out I actually listen to music of the Baroque much less than music from any other of the four time periods. But never fear! I can still write about the period in a tone that implies absolute confidence in my own knowledge! Any questions? No? Good.

General Listening Suggestions

The three biggest names in Baroque music, at least from the modern American perspective, are Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Georg Friedrich Handel. Most of the Baroque music in my collection was written by one of those three guys, and honestly I can't feel too bad about it. All three wrote at a consistently high level, and you could do worse for a Baroque listening strategy than to just focus on them.

Handel, who wrote in England, is a bit heartier than the other two. His music has a bit of bluster in it that I like. It's peppy. J.S. Bach is the intellectual, writing intricate pieces where the various parts all seem to move independently of each other but also somehow come together in an coherent whole. There's a mathematical precision to Bach. Physicists love him. Vivaldi is sunnier, showier, a violin virtuoso who creates music that feels a little more spontaneous, a little less methodical, than Bach's. If you root around in the music of these three, you'll find a certain sameness to a lot of it, but you'll also find some real gems. If you can handle vocal music, try Handel's operas, Bach's cantatas, and the Vivaldi Gloria.

There was also a lot of concerto writing going on in the Baroque, so if you are fond of a particular instrument and want to get away from the Big Three, you can look for a collection of concerti. For instance, I have a disc here called "Baroque Trumpet Classics" (this one happens to be on the Seraphim Classics label) that features concerti by Stolzel, Telemann, Torelli, and (of course) Vivaldi. It's good! And, the focus on a single instrument gives a concerto a distinct sonic texture, and breaks up the sameness you can sometimes get in the Baroque sound.

More Specific Suggestions

Realizing my lack of breadth on the Baroque circuit, and knowing that the L&TM5K readership expects the very highest level of content, I have been digging around in the Baroque literature a little to find some new pieces for us to listen to. Here's what I've turned up.

Corelli: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. There's a sweet wistfulness in these proto-symphonies that, combined with the inherent thinness of the Baroque sound, strikes me as downright autumnal. Maybe its just that we are approaching the turn of the season, but this music seems to conjure up visions of falling leaves, late sunshine, and apple stands. Very pleasant stuff.

Tartini: Five Sonatas for Violin & Basso Continuo. Most chamber music before Beethoven or thereabouts was composed more to be enjoyed by the players than to be enjoyed by listeners. This was before wide-screen television, computer gaming, and fantasy sports, remember, so the poor wretches were reduced to playing music together as a form of entertainment. Much of a composer's money was made through providing sheet music for this market.

The Tartini Sonatas show the classic profile of chamber music written for amateur performers. The violin part offers opportunities to show off, but really isn't very complicated. The harpsichord part is even simpler, for the most part just laying out chords for the violin to riff over. The cello part requires little more than a living human being, which goes to show that, then as now, it was hard to scare up a good bass player.

For all that, they are nice. At times a little on the formal side, at times fairly jolly, they have a great deal of old-world garage band charm. They won't blow you out of your shoes, but they might pick up your mood a little.

Handel: Recorder Sonatas, Op. 1. Since our last discussion of the Baroque prompted a free and frank exchange of views on the recorder, I thought I would give Handel's contribution to the repertoire a listen. They are very listenable! They are light, bouyant, and highlight the pure quality of the instrument's tone rather nicely. They are also, it must be said, a bit static harmonically. Since the recorder can't really cover the whole chromatic scale, a piece that uses it has very few options for changing key. It's interesting to hear Handel try to fudge this problem. He has the accompanying instruments change key while the recorder plays melody lines cobbled together out of the handful of notes within that key that it can produce. Even with this trick, though, a little bit of monotony sets in if you are listening too carefully.

Bach: Cello Suites. Six suites! Six movements apiece! One instrument! And the cello isn't really a chord-playing instrument, either, so for the most part you are simply listening to a single melodic line throughout the suites. It goes without saying that this makes for a somewhat austere music. This is probably not the best choice for music to keep you perky while driving at night. However, there is a dignified sweetness to these pieces that makes them good listening, and -- sorry, Bach -- terrific background music for writing and thinking. The first movement of the first suite is the big hit of the series; you can give it a listen and decide from there if you want a lot more of the same.

Teleman: The Paris Quartets. Bubbly, pleasant, suitable for a wedding reception -- this is champaigne music. The flute is a featured instrument in some of the quartets, which gives them a lightness of touch that might be charming, or kind of lame, depending on your mood. Not recommended for firing up the team before the big game. But potentially great in other settings.


Elizabeth said...

Now if you had selected the Telemann recorder concerti instead of the Handel, you might have a different opinion. They're really fun, and very challenging for all players. And Boismortier wrote some very neat stuff as well.

I am tempted to provide backup recorder accompaniment for all eras - yea, even unto the modern day.

Though you could also glance through this piece, entitled "Instrument of Torture or Instrument of Music?" I'm afraid I'm a bit biased towards the latter ...


Michael5000 said...

Telemann Recorder Concerti! Comin' right up! But, you'll have to wait a month, as I used up all my Emusic downloads on this batch. Any specific Boismortier you want me to look at?

Elizabeth said...

I'll have specific suggestions for you after I visit my friend Donna, who has an impressive collection of Baroque sheet music - she's the one I've played with for years, in Port Orford. No music this trip, though, as our oboeist is at Legacy Emanuel recovering slowly from a very bad car accident. If I remember to get her list, I will pass it on to you.

Anonymous said...

THIS was great! I now have a shopping list. It's kind of embarrassing to admit but many times when music is playing in the background I get annoyed with it to the point that I won't play any music for long spans of time. But I had not really considered classical music much. I like some of it and have a little but I think it may serve well as background music.

I certainly need to learn more about it, so I welcome classical Wednesdays whenever you choose to do them!