In modern concert life, concertos often take the spotlight. Large-scale works, usually in three movements (fast-slow-fast), they give big-name soloists a chance to prove their virtuosity by sailing over the full orchestra. It wasn’t always so, and today’s concert, covering about a century and a half, gives some sense of how the current conventions came to be. Granted, no history is linear, and this history may be less linear than most. Still, in the course of the afternoon, we’ll hear different ways in which soloist and orchestra interact. We’ll also see differences in the degree to which the character of the solo instrument influences the character of the work. And although composers generally use smaller orchestras for concertos than they do for symphonies, we’ll notice that orchestral size tends to grow during our period, less to increase volume than to increase possibilities for color.
Before the concerto in the modern sense, there was the “concerto grosso,” a popular baroque form that plays off a group of soloists (the “concertino”) against a slightly larger ensemble (the “ripieno”). The most familiar examples of the genre are the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). But it was Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) who got this form off the ground in his Op. 6 collection for three solo strings, string orchestra, and continuo. As is clear from our offering today—the fourth of the set—the soloists don’t appear as protagonists. Rather, the four-movement concerto relies on the contrast between concertino and ripieno to create differences in color, texture, and especially weight.
The Corelli is followed with a “composite” concerto illustrating the development from the baroque to the late classical/early romantic concerto with movements drawn from three different works representing three different musical periods.
We begin with Bach. Although he’s famous for his concerti grossi, he also represents, along with Vivaldi, the height of the baroque solo concerto as well. This afternoon’s selection—the first movement of the Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Strings (c. 1730)—doesn’t pose exceptional technical challenges (it’s nowhere near as virtuosic as many of Vivaldi’s violin concertos are); and while the soloist stands out more than those in the Corelli, there’s a sense that the violinist is among partners, the first among (almost) equals. “The soloist weaves in and out of the tutti,” says Jeremy Mastrangelo, “part of the texture that bubbles up.” Texture is the key word: for Jeremy, what makes the work a masterpiece is “the way the lines weave together. Each line is both independent and interdependent. You can pick out any individual line to listen to in this piece—the viola, the cello, or the violin or whoever—and you’re going to find something interesting and beautiful. But at the same time, they all come together and create a tapestry.” For Bach, the nature of the instrument isn’t crucial—he happily recast his concertos for different instruments. In fact, nearly all of his keyboard concertos had their origins in concertos for violin.
If Bach serves as the baroque ideal, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) does the same for classicism—so we turn to him for our middle movement, taken from the Flute Concerto No. 1 (1778). In this haunting and lucid work, the soloist stands in greater relief. Even though the orchestra is a bit larger and more colorful than Bach’s (a few winds have been added), it’s less a partner in creating textures than an accompaniment to the flute’s musings; the movement also provides the soloist a chance to play a cadenza. (For today’s performance, Deborah Coble has chosen a shortened version of a cadenza jointly written by Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert). Mozart hated the flute, but you’d never guess it from this concerto, which expertly puts the instrument in its most flattering light. The middle movement, Debby points out, requires particular control and precision—but it also provides opportunities for expressiveness and tenderness. This performance has special poignance, since it represents Debby’s last concerto appearance with the orchestra. After 41 years playing orchestral flute in Syracuse, she will be retiring at the end of this season.
The finale of our composite concerto, the last movement of the Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (1811) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), stands as a bridge between late classical style and early romanticism. The specifics of the solo instrument are even more important here. In fact, the concerto was designed in part to show off the latest innovations in instrumental design, which through the addition of extra keys allowed greater flexibility. Similarly, Weber’s handling of the orchestra, slightly larger than Mozart’s, shows an increased reliance on color as a compositional element. Traditionally, the finale is the flashiest movement—and this one meets that expectation, although Weber’s genius saves it from being a mere showpiece through what Allan Kolsky calls “his sense of grace and humor and his operatic feeling for lyricism and melody.” In part because it’s in rondo form, says Allan, “the movement has nice variety. The rondo theme itself is very cheerful and lively, and provides a strong contrast to the other themes, including a much more lyrical one in a minor key and a humorous one starting in the lowest register of the clarinet.”
After intermission, we have the Violin Concerto completed in 1844 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which for many listeners stands with the Beethoven, the Brahms, and the Tchaikovsky as one of the archetypal violin concertos. It certainly matches the trajectories we’ve been charting. The orchestra, the largest on the program, provides a backdrop as luminous as any in the whole concerto repertoire before the twentieth century. Yet “backdrop” is a crucial term, for the work remains profoundly solo-centered, both in the sense that the solo part still takes priority and in the sense that it is so quintessentially violinistic.
But while it may be archetypal, like all great works it has its own special character. For instance, although we don’t usually think of Mendelssohn as an experimenter, it’s formally less traditional, as Jeremy points out, than the Brahms Concerto written 35 years later. Among other things, the three movements are linked—with an especially “wonderful” bridge to the finale. More important, though, is its infectious spirit. “One of the things I love about it, and about Mendelssohn in general,” says Jeremy “is its sense of sweep, its very horizontal motion.” The first movement “starts right out with that,” as the “violin comes in with lyrical, singing melody over an undulating accompaniment.” After a “gorgeous” slow movement, we come to the “effervescent” final which “captures joy in a way that few composers can.” With its unequalled “sparkle,” it provides a special uplift to the end of the concert.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org