MUSIC CRITICISM: 18th Century Cultural Exchange – From Italy to England
“Baroque glories: the great concertos”
The Handel and Haydn Society Ensemble conducted by Aisslinn Nosky
At the Mahaiwe, Wednesday June 29, 2022
Concerti by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Avison
Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto grosso in D major, op. 6 no. 4
Charles Avison, Concerto Grosso no. 5 in D minor (after Scarlatti)
Antonio Vivaldi, Violin Concerto in A minor, RV 356
Francesco Geminiani, Concerto grosso in G minor, after Corelli, op. 5 no. 5
Corelli, Concerto Grosso in B flat major, op. 6 no. 11
George Frederick Handel, Concerto grosso in F major, op. 6 no. 9
Geminiani, Concerto Grosso “La Folia” in D minor, after Corelli, op. 5 no. 12
Aisslinn Nosky is a violin virtuoso who approaches baroque music with a blend of historical awareness and a touch of punk rock sensibility. She conducted a small string ensemble from the venerable Boston Handel and Haydn Society in an interesting program of concertos, some for solo violin and others in “concerto grosso” configuration, which demonstrated the close interconnections between Italian and English music. at the beginning of the 18e century. It also demonstrated Nosky’s theatrical flair and his predilection for certain very fast tempos.
The string ensemble’s performance style shared with last Saturday’s Aston Magna concert the use of original instruments and HIP (Historically Informed Performance). Performers used baroque bows (shorter and lighter than their modern counterparts) and lower tension gut strings, producing light, clear and highly articulate results, while only using vibrato selectively. The rock sensibility that emanates from Nosky (and not just from his flamboyant red hairstyle) takes the form of tempos so rapid that certain movements parade in a haze of notes, engulfing melodic shapes and all nuance other than driving energy. Admittedly, the Italian baroque style relied on the virtuosity of its violinist-composers, in particular Corelli; this style included a physical energy, vigorous figuration, and elaborate ornamentation, and a newly clarified tonal logic and coherence that served as a model for almost all subsequent composers, including Handel and Bach. Moreover, however, “the style of [Corelli’s] the performance was scholarly, elegant and pathetic,” according to English music columnist John Hawkins. The volcanic energy of rapid movements came at the cost of some sacrifice of these other qualities.
Two of Corelli’s collections, his twelve sonatas for solo violin op. 5, and twelve concerti grossi op. 6, were given pride of place in this programme, each extremely popular and influential at the time of their publication (1700 and 1714, resp.), each giving rise to imitations.
George Frederick Handel (to use the English form of his name) met Corelli during his years in Italy, 1707-1710, and like so many others was very impressed. Thirty years later and well established in London, Handel publishes his own set of twelve concerti grossi, his most important collection of mature instrumental works. Inasmuch as tribute at Corelli, he publishes them as his own opus 6.
Francesco Geminiani, Corelli’s most prominent pupil and the most important violin pedagogue of the 18th century, made arrangements for strings
orchestra of Corelli’s violin sonatas; two of them have been included in this program, converting the intimate solo sonata form into a greater opportunity for virtuosity. Arriving in England in 1714 (about the same time as Handel), Gemininiani remained there, enjoying a long career. He happily encountered English and Scottish folk melodies and incorporated them into some of his compositions.
Another Italy-England connection has been included in this network of programmatic cross-references. English composer Charles Avison’s concerto was part of a set of twelve, all of whose movements are transcriptions of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Scarlatti (son of Alessandro, whose music was featured on this Aston Magna programme) is known as the composer of 555 (!) Keyboard Sonatas composed as “lessons” for his only pupil, Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal and Spain . He had met Handel in Rome around 1709 and the two had organized a keyboard competition at the home of Cardinal Pamphili, one of Corelli’s patrons. Scarlatti won the harpsichord part while Handel won on the organ. Most likely, the two contemporaries friends agreed to split the difference. In 1739, an English publisher seized copies of a pirated collection of these works and published them in two volumes. They immediately became very popular with accomplished amateur keyboardists in London.
Composer, violinist and organist, Charles Avison is not known to many music lovers, but he had an important career and was well known in his own country during the 18e and 19e centuries. His music is mainly for strings, with some works for keyboard and mixed voices. It includes sixty concertos for strings, mostly published in batches of twelve during his lifetime (1709-1770); perhaps the best known were the concerto transcriptions of selections from those Scarlatti sonatas known to him, published in 1759. ‘they were meant for chains from the start. It was refreshing to hear these well-performed works; they were probably the least familiar elements of this program, and it would be wonderful to hear more.
As the only true concerto for solo violin, Vivaldi’s very famous Concerto in A minor (thanks to Suzuki) was a bit of an aberration. Every violin student knows this relatively simple work, and it has been recorded countless times. After reviewing many examples, including the fastest recorded version (by Fabio Biondi), I found that the tempo of Aisslinn Nosky’s performance exceeded them all. If this was a competition, Nosky would win, but either way, Vivaldi lost.
The Handel and Haydn set included five violins (two first and three seconds), two violas, two cellos, a bass and a harpsichord. There have been last-minute staffing changes, in part due to COVID; in the large space of the Mahaiwe, and despite the vigor of the performances, the overall impression was of a delicate, even fragile sound. A similar group in a smaller space, say in the private apartments of Corelli’s patron, would have seemed more robust; the concerto grosso (large ensemble) genre made a more powerful impression. In a first description of 1682, Georg Muffat wrote that in Rome he heard “with great pleasure and astonishment, several concertos, …composed by the gifted Signor Arcangelo Corelli, and magnificently interpreted with the greatest precision by a large number instrumental players. (emphasis ours) The fundamental element of the genre is an alternation between a small subgroup (“concertino”) and the full ensemble (“ripieno”) producing a variety of strong dynamic contrasts which were probably the source of Muffat’s “astonishment”. These contrasts came across as muted in the interpretations of the H&H set.
Despite these reservations, the musicians displayed exceptional craftsmanship, fulfilling the qualities of “great intonation” and incisive articulation attributed to Corelli himself. Special mention should be made of cellist Guy Fishman, whose solos rivaled Nosky in exaggerated virtuosity; and distinguished keyboardist Ian Watson, whose harpsichord contributions, while not always audible to the audience, clearly served to provide overall cohesion and rhythmic vitality.