Thursday, April 5, 2018

Juilliard415 Performs 18th Century English Chamber Music

On Tuesday afternoon, I walked down Central Park West to hear the Juilliard415 perform the last of its four annual noonday recitals at Holy Trinity Church.  The program was entitled 18th Century English Chamber Music, but this was somewhat misleading as several of the freatured composers were not English at all but rather visitors from other parts of Europe who either made England their home or else had some strong association with the British Isles.

The program opened with the Quintet in D major, Op. 33, No 1 (published posthumously in 1785) for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord by Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J.S. Bach.  In many ways, Bach is the most interesting of the composers whose works were featured at this recital.  He lived an adventursome life, first traveling to Italy where much to the consternation of his family he converted to Catholicism and composed a good bit of sacred music before moving on to London, the city that had attracted so many of his fellow German composers.  It was in London that Bach made the acquaintance of the 8 year old Mozart who in adulthood became a great admirer of Bach's music and often praised it.   During his time in London, Bach wrote several Italian operas as well as orchestral and chamber music.  Such compositions were distinguished by Bach's mastery of the galant style whose sparer textures marked a turning point from the complexities of the Baroque era to the emergence of the classical period.  Bach was also ahead of his time in being the first important composer to recognize the potential advantages of the piano over other keyboard instruments then available.  Sadly, in spite of such achievements, Bach died penniless and deeply in debt.

Next were two selections, the Nos. 7 and 11, from Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins (1747) by William Boyce that in addition to the two violins mentioned in the title also employed a cello and harpsichord as basso continuo.  Although known primarily for his sacred music, Boyce was an extremely prolific composer as well as a virtuoso organist and an esteemed educator.  His sonatas, however, sounded somewhat derivative to this listener; it may have been that he was deliberately playing on the popularity of Corelli's style to make his own works a success.

The Boyce sonatas were followed by Tommaso Giordani's String Quartet in A major, Op. 8, No. 4 (1775).  I had always considered the string quartet genre to have begun with Haydn's Op. 20 in 1772, and I was surprised to learn that there was another composer working with the quartet form at exactly the same time.  Whether Giordani was aware of Haydn's quartets is an intriguing question, but the present piece at least does not seem to have been influenced by the Viennese master.  As the program notes point out, it is much more in the form of the galant style that however advanced it may have appeared at the time now sounds positively archaic when compared with Haydn's revolutionary accomplishments.  Still, Giordani must be seen as an intermediary between the Baroque trio sonata and the classical string quartet to the extent that he assigned separate voices to all four instruments rather than using the viola and cello merely as continuo.  In this sense, these works were a clear advance over the Boyce sonatas written some thirty years earlier.

The next work was James Oswald's Sonata of Scots Tunes (1740) arranged for flute, two violins, viola da gamba, harpsichord, theorbo and guitar.  I have to admit that I had never before heard of Oswald, but I was nonetheless delighted by this faithful adapation of five Scottish folk tunes.- "O Mother What Shall I Do," "Ettrick Banks," "She Rose and Let Me In," "Cromlit's Lilt" and "Polwart on the Green."  One senses throughout the sonata that Oswald had the same deep respect for his folk sources that Bartók was many years later to display for his own country's music.

The recital ended with two movements from Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D major, Hob. I/104 (1795) in a reduction for chamber ensemble - consisting of flute, two violins, viola, cello, bassoon, bass and harpsichord - by Johann Peter Salomon, the wily impresario who had lured Haydn to London for a spectacularly successful tour and who never missed an opportunity to turn a profit on the music he promoted.  All the same, Salomon was an able violinist - Haydn composed his Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major at the request of Salomon who then went on to play the solo violin part - and much more knowledgeable when it came to music than most of his English contemporaries.  The "London Symphony," actually only one of twelve that Haydn composed while in England, was a great success and wildly popular with British audiences.  The two movements performed at this recital were the second, a melodious andante, and the finale, a truly exuberant piece of music that shows just how much Haydn was enjoying his time in England.

The same program was performed the next day live on WQXR's Midday Live from the Greene Space; the archived performance should soon be available for viewing on the station's website.

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