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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): "Bach alla maniera italiana"
Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
concert: Jan 21, 2017, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Concerto in d minor (BWV 596) (after Antonio Vivaldi) (siciliana); Concerto in d minor (BWV 974) (after Alessandro Marcello) (adagio); Concerto in F (BWV 978) (after Antonio Vivaldi); Concerto in g minor (BWV 975) (after Antonio Vivaldi); Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); Sonata in d minor (after Sonata in a minor, BWV 1003)

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concertos & motets
Lucile Richardot, mezzo-sopranoa; Xenia Löffler, oboeb; Collegium 1704/Václav Luks
concert: Jan 21, 2017, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Alessandro MARCELLO (1684-1750): Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in d minorb; Antonio VIVALDI: Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in C (RV 450)b; Concerto for strings and bc in g minor (RV 157); Nisi Dominus for alto, strings and bc (RV 608)a; Overture Arsilda, Regina di Ponto (RV 700); Stabat mater for alto, strings and bc in f minor (RV 621)a

Last year a tradition of six years came to an end: a whole day devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, taking place on two consecutive days in January, in Utrecht and Amsterdam. This year a new tradition started: every year this event will be devoted to a different composer. It was Vivaldi who was given the honour to make the start.

The recital of harpsichordist Benjamin Alard was a nice bridge between the previous Bach days and the present Vivaldi day in that he played pieces which document the Italian, and particularly Vivaldi's influence on his oeuvre. In Bach's time composers learnt new styles and new techniques by copying and arranging or transcribing music. That is how Bach became acquainted with the Italian concerto form. He transcribed a number of instrumental concertos for harpsichord or organ. These transcriptions are partly interchangeable: the harpsichord transcriptions can also be played at the organ. The other way round is only possible when the transcription omits a pedal part. Alard started with such a piece, the siciliano from the Concerto in d minor (BWV 596), which is a transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto in d minor, op. 3,11. The siciliano was often used for Christmas concertos, and its characteristic rhythm came off nicely in Alard's performance. He also added quite some ornamentation.

That was also the case in the next piece, a harpsichord transcription of another concerto from Vivaldi's op. 3, the Concerto in F (BWV 978). The brilliance of the original piece was perfectly conveyed, but also its dramatic character - a feature of so much Italian music of the baroque period - by connecting the movements which were played nearly attacca. It was not only Vivaldi who raised Bach's interest: he also transcribed the Concerto in d minor for oboe by Alessandro Marcello, although it is not quite clear whether Bach himself knew who the original composer was. It has become quite famous, and especially the adagio has been used for commercials and television programmes. It is a piece of superb lyricism which cannot be completely translated to the harpsichord, but Alard came quite close. The fourth transcription was another concerto by Vivaldi, the Concerto in g minor (BWV 975), whose original is part of the twelve concertos op. 4, called La Stravaganza. It is the challenge to the interpreter to keep the concerto character, with its contrasts between solo and tutti episodes, intact, and Alard managed to do so, exploring the possibilities of the two-manual harpsichord.

How strongly Bach was influenced by the Italian style came to the fore in his Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971) - better known as 'Italian Concerto' - which he included in his Clavier-Übung II. As the other piece in this collection is the Ouvertüre nach französischer Art this collection documents which influences left their marks in Bach's oeuvre. The Italian Concerto is a demonstration of the pure Vivaldian concerto form. One could consider this a kind of transcription of an instrumental concerto that was never written. There are several recordings of this piece by an instrumental ensemble and in that form it comes off very well. However, the original is much to be preferred and Alard delivered an engaging performance.

It is not only the form of the concerto which came from Italy. The same goes for the sonata; in the early 17th century virtuosic and idiomatic music for various instruments was written and although the term 'sonata' or versions of it had been used before, this word was now applied to various forms of music for one or more instruments and bc. The solo and trio sonatas by Corelli are certainly the most influential in music history. Among Bach's most famous sonatas are the three for violin solo, part of a set of three partitas and three sonatas. These sonatas are in four movements, clearly modelled after those by Corelli, including a fugal second movement. Bach himself liked to play these pieces at the keyboard, and this is ample justification for modern transcriptions. Alard played the Sonata No. 2 in d minor (BWV 1003). The slow movements were played with plenty of expression. The fugue had much transparency which allowed to follow the various voices. In both movements Alard used agogical means to make the audience feel the dance rhythms.

I heard Alard for the first time in the Festival Early Music where he rushed through his programme. I was rather sceptical about his performances which I found a bit superficial. In recent years he has quieted down and his performances have much more depth. My positive impressions of recent CD recordings were confirmed in this concert: right now he is a very fine harpsichordist and convincing Bach interpreter.

The evening concert was devoted to sacred music. This took also a central place in last year's Early Music Festival Utrecht. The idea behind this was the assumption that this is the least-known part of Vivaldi's oeuvre. That seems questionable. At least some of his sacred works are pretty well-known, for instance two larger-scale pieces, the Gloria in D and the Magnificat in g minor. In the programme which was performed by the Czech baroque orchestra Collegium 1704, directed by Václav Luks, two solo works were sung by the French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot: the Stabat mater and Nisi Dominus. These are not unknown either; in fact, they are also among the better-known vocal works by Vivaldi. They have all the features which allow them to make a lasting impression. I vividly remember the first time I heard them, in a recording by the British alto James Bowman and Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. These performances are still well worth hearing. It is not easy to say for which kind of voice these two works may have been intended. Vivaldi composed probably most of his sacred music for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà but there are reasons to believe that Nisi Dominus was written for a performance outside the Pietà. In that case a male soloist - likely a castrato - would be the most obvious choice. The Stabat mater was certainly not intended for performance at the Pietà; it was commissioned for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin in March 1712 in Brescia. It is notable that Vivaldi did not set the complete poem but only the first ten verses and the Amen. These were the stanzas needed for a performance as part of the Vespers. The audience at the concert may have been surprised by this as the programme included the complete poem.

The performance by a female singer naturally results in a completely different sound picture. Lucile Richardot was announced as a mezzo-soprano in the programme but she has a very strong low register which makes her sound like a true contralto to my ears. She delivered a highly differentiated and subtle performance. Some passages were sung piano or even pianissimo and those in the audience who were seated at some distance from the stage may have had trouble to hear every note. There were also passages, where she explored her lower register to the full which had a quite dramatic effect. It was a very expressive performance. There were two issues I need to mention: there was quite a lot of ornamentation, and I felt that it was sometimes a little over the top and not always technically perfect. I also noted that the tempi were mostly rather slow, probably a little too slow. Nisi Dominus is a very different work, much more extroverted and exuberant, and that came off perfectly. Ms Richardot showed that she has much dramatic power as well. However, there were also very subtle episodes, like the Cum dederit, with its wonderful siciliano rhythm, which received a moving performance. Very nice was the Gloria patri, with an obbligato part for the viola d'amore, beautifully played by the orchestra's leader, Jana Anyzová. The work ended with a brilliant and exuberant 'Amen'. In this work again there was quite some ornamentation but here it seemed more justified than in the Stabat mater. I should not forget to mention that Ms Richardot also used some more vibrato than is stylistically justified.

The main influence of Vivaldi on the course of music history was the texture of the solo concerto: an alternation of episodes for the solo instrument and passages for the strings, known as ritornelli. The bulk of Vivaldi's concerto output is scored for his own instrument, the violin, but he also composed many concertos for other instruments, such as the cello, the oboe and the bassoon. The German oboist Xenia Löffler was the soloist in the Concerto in C (RV 450) which was played in the first half. In the second half we heard another concerto, one of the most famous of the baroque era, from the pen of Alessandro Marcello - the same concerto from which Benjamin Alard played the adagio. It was quite interesting to hear these concertos within one programme, which revealed the differences. In its connection between the oboe and the strings Marcello's concerto is closer to the older type which we find, for instance, in the oeuvre of Tomaso Albinoni than to Vivaldi's concertos, but the difference in the solo parts is even more striking. In Vivaldi we find endless and virtuosic roulades, very much comparable to the arias in his operas. In comparison the solo part in Marcello's concerto is much more moderate and rather lyrical; the adagio is a specimen of superb lyricism and expression. That was perfectly conveyed in Ms Löffler's interpretation who added some beautiful ornamentation. She showed her technical prowess in the fast movements of Vivaldi's concerto, receiving excellent support from the strings of Collegium 1704. They also played the overture to Vivaldi's opera Arsilda - which Luks is going to record later this year - and one of his best-known concertos for strings, the Concerto in g minor (RV 157) whose closing movement was rightly played at a high speed, but with the appropriate dynamic accents.

This Vivaldi Day was a worthy sequel to the Bach Days of previous years. Next year we will have a Purcell Day. That is definitely something to look forward to.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Concert reviews