Released September 19, 2016
Composers: Georg Friedrich Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach, Giuseppe Tartini, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann
Performers: National Arts Centre Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, Charles Hamann
Genres: Orchestral Music
“The Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” derives from a much larger work, the oratorio Solomon. Solomon, first performed in 1749, is an account of the great ruler who reigned over Judah and Israel in the tenth century B.C., as recounted in Chronicles and Kings. Acts I and II portray the might of the King, the splendour of his court, and his famous judgement in the dispute between the two alleged mothers of a bastard child. In Act III, Solomon is visited by the beautiful Queen of Sheba (or Saba, a land now corresponding to Yemen, in the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula). As a fitting prelude to her arrival, Handel wrote the brilliant, festive music we call today “The Arrival [or Entrance] of the Queen of Sheba”, a title affixed not by Handel but probably by the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. This is no stately, pompous entrance music, but rather a mood piece indicative of the state of excitement throughout Solomon’s court as the people await the queen’s imminent arrival.
It was common and accepted practice in Bach’s day to transcribe, arrange or adapt previously written music, both one’s own and that of others, for some immediate new purpose. All of Bach’s harpsichord concertos, for example, are transcriptions of concertos for other melody instruments, in some cases by other composers. His seven concertos for solo harpsichord and orchestra, plus the six for multiple (two, three or four) harpsichords, were composed in the early 1730s in Leipzig, mostly for the Collegium Musicum, a loosely-organized group of amateur musicians who performed mainly at Zimmermann’s Coffee House. The original source upon which Bach based his Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords (BWV 1060) has been lost. This recording is a reconstruction of the presumed original, which Bach probably wrote sometime around 1720 while he was employed at . The differences between the two harpsichord version and the presumed original for violin and oboe are not difficult to imagine: violin and oboe, being single-line melody instruments, cannot indulge in the chords and full rich sonorities available to keyboard instruments, but on the other hand, they can offer gradations of volume impossible on the harpsichord as well as a fascinating interplay of colours and nuances unattainable on two instruments of the same timbre. This concerto follows the standard pattern established principally by Vivaldi for the Baroque concerto: a threemovement work in the fast-slow-fast mould with the centre of gravity in the first movement. The usual orchestra consisted of strings only, plus (except in the case of a harpsichord concerto) a harpsichord to enrich the sonority. Outer movements consisted of orchestral ritornellos (repeated presentations of the opening material in whole or in part) in alternation with episodes for the solo instrument(s). The central slow movement was invariably lyrical, often vocally conceived. In the case of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, we find a serene dialogue of ravishing sweetness which offers a moment of repose in music otherwise infused with great energy and drive.
The career of composer, violinist, teacher, theorist, traveler and fencing master Giuseppe Tartini is one of the most illustrious in the history of music. Along with Corelli and Vivaldi, he formed a kind of unofficial triumvirate whose influence accounted for over a century of unbroken supremacy of the violin. Years later, a strong interest in music of bygone eras led the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) to write many of his best-known works, including the ballet La Boutique fantasque (based on Rossini’s music), The Birds (old harpsichord pieces), and Ancient Airs and Dances (seventeenth and eighteenth century lute music). Respighi also transcribed or arranged pieces by many Baroque masters including Bach, Vivaldi, Frescobaldi and Tartini. In 1908, he arranged two of Tartini’s violin sonatas for modern instruments. The one in A major is known as the Pastorale, a relevant description inasmuch as its third movement (Largo) includes drones suggestive of bagpipes and is set to the siciliano rhythm traditionally associated with shepherds’ music. The violin line remains more or less as Tartini set it, but Respighi created a more elaborate accompaniment for string orchestra.
A double concerto for violin and cello is something of a rarity. Many concertgoers know Brahms’ great Double Concerto for this pair of soloists, by far the most famous example of its kind in the repertoire. But well over a century before Brahms’ concerto appeared, Vivaldi had written three such works. (He also wrote a Double Cello Concerto and a “Double” Double Concerto for two violins and two cellos – nothing if not versatile, this Vivaldi!). Both soloists are treated as absolute equals, and both indulge in acrobatic high jinks involving rapid wide leaps and nimble bouncing about. So much of a pair are they that only in the finale do we find them featured individually, and then only briefly.
Telemann was the most renowned and successful German composer of his day, eclipsing even Bach in prestige (Telemann was the Leipzig city council’s first choice to fill the position there, but he was unavailable, so Bach was accepted instead), salary (Telemann earned three times what Bach made), and productivity (Telemann wrote more than Bach and Handel put together). Telemann’s Viola Concerto is generally accepted as the first for this instrument. We do not know exactly when it was written, but it is highly probable that it comes from the period 1712 to 1721. The string writing is in four-part texture, there are dancelike movements (the second and fourth), and the concerto avoids the contrapuntal style in favour of transparent textures, a quality particularly apropos so as not to cover the gentle voice of the soloist. The opening movement exudes a gentle warmth, and is all the more remarkable for being constructed from little more than a three-note melodic cell repeated and varied over the course of the entire movement. The second movement gives the soloist numerous opportunities to demonstrate technical facility. The sombre yet elegant Andante, in E minor, is notable for the absence of a bass voice (cellos and continuo) during the solo passages, thus allowing the viola to stand out even while accompanied by the string orchestra. The concerto concludes with a vivacious Presto in the spirit of a French bourrée, a stylized dance in quick duple metre and a single upbeat, common in the seventeenth century.
Four of Bach’s suites for orchestra have come down to us, though he may well have written more that are now lost. Each is a magnificent achievement, opening with a majestic, elaborate Overture and continuing with a succession of highly contrasted shorter movements mostly of dance-like character. Each suite is written for a different combination of instruments (though Nos. 3 and 4 are nearly the same). Bach himself did not call these works “suites”. He used the term “ouverture,” and the French spelling was intentional, as the opening movement was patterned after the festive French overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). The Lully ouverture was long, weighty, impressive and usually in three connected parts: 1) a stately grave section characterized by a slow tempo, majestic aura and much use of the so-called “dotted” rhythm (a notational device that results in an alternation of long and short note values); 2) a lively allegro passage with much imitation between voices and a complex polyphonic texture; 3) a return of the opening grave section. Since the Ouverture was by far the longest and most substantial movement of the orchestral suites, Bach adopted the literary device of synecdoche – letting a part stand for the whole. The famous Air stands alone in the Third Suite for its absence of wind instruments. Trumpets, oboes and timpani return in all their glory and brilliance for the pair of Gavottes. Then follows another French dance in duple metre, the Bourrée, which is a bit faster and has just a quarter note upbeat, or, in this case, two eighth notes. The festive, highly extrovert nature of the Third Suite (the Air excepted) continues right through to the last number, which is a Gigue – normally a rapid and light-footed number in 6/8 metre (often to a long-short rhythmic pattern), but here displaying more of a stately and ceremonial gliding effect.© Robert Markow