Not as Simple as 1-2-3: Trios Performed by Juilliard Baroque


Handel, C. P. E. Bach, Telemann, Zelenka, J. S. Bach: Juilliard Baroque, Gonzalo X. Ruiz (oboe), Robert Mealy (violin), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Jeffrey Grossman (harpsichord), Paul Hall, Juilliard School, New York, 23.1.2014  (SSM)

Handel: Trio Sonata in B-flat major Op. 2, No. 3, HWV 388
C. P. E. Bach: Sonata for Oboe and Basso Continuo in G minor, H 549
Telemann: Fantasia for Harpsichord, No. 2 in D minor, TWV 33:2
Zelenka: Trio Sonata in B-flat major, ZWV 181/3
Telemann: Trio Sonata in G minor, TWV 42:g5, from Essercizi Musici
J. S. Bach: Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in G major, BWV 1021
J. S. Bach: Trio Sonata in F major, after BWV 525 arr. Ruiz


Juilliard Baroque consists of faculty from the Juilliard’s renowned historical performance department and is one of two ensembles that give public concerts during the school year. The second ensemble is Juilliard415, a student group that varies in size from a few chamber music players to a full-blown orchestra. For the last several semesters the teaching group has opened the public concert season.

Except for one of Telemann’s rarely performed fantasias for harpsichord, the program consisted of various examples of the Baroque trio sonata. One would think that a trio is just that: Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio is for piano, violin and cello, and Schubert’s string trios are for violin, viola and cello. Baroque trios are not that simple, and the first piece on the program exemplifies the complexity of what later became a standard musical form.

The title of Opus 2, printed in one of Handel’s collected editions, is: Sonatas or Trios for Two Violins, Flutes or Hoboys (oboes) with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsichord or Violincello. In later publications Handel had a final say before his sheet music was printed, but in this case his publisher, John Walsh, saw an opportunity to broaden his customer base by transposing keys where needed so as to make the works playable by the broadest combinations of musicians. If a musician purchasing the scores wasn’t part of a trio then he could still buy it for personal use: the cover stated that the score could be either for a soloist (“sonata”) or for a trio. This is really no more than good public relations and clever advertising, and Handel himself was no slouch in regard to selling his products, whether scores or operas.

Tonight’s performance added one other instrument not included on the cover page: the bassoon, used here along with the harpsichord as the “Through Bass” (basso continuo). Handel didn’t skimp on the basso continuo’s role, which is usually a simple accompaniment, and here included several virtuosic passages for the bassoon, all handled agilely by Dominic Teresi. The “trio” of four were exemplary, the only issue being Robert Mealy’s lack of the aggressiveness needed to balance properly with Gonzalo Ruiz’s forceful oboe.

C. P. E. Bach’s output, although no match for his father’s, was voluminous: eighty or so concerti, hundreds of sonatas, mostly for keyboard, and over twenty passions are just part of his legacy. This year is his tercentenary and hopefully a time to revive this underrated composer. When we talk about Sturm und Drang, we forget that all of C. P. E. Bach’s music was of this kind. His works invariably are what Robert Mealy so appropriately characterized as “edgy” (on the cutting edge). Even this brief sonata, written in his late teens or early twenties, shows aspects of his sui generis musical output: syncopation, unbalanced phrases, a simple harmonic line of repeated notes (in clear contrast to his father’s complex harmonic lines) and unusual cadences that are invariably a surprise. The third movement is in an odd form which would appear to be a theme and variations, but the variations have little to do with the opening theme. A final da capo repeat of the opening theme, typical of the theme and variation form, ends this unusual sonata. Ruiz played with conviction, negotiating the sharp curves with apparent ease.

Telemann’s set of Fantasias for Keyboard is almost unique in his vast musical output. He was, like Vivaldi, a prolific producer of instrumental and vocal music, but shied away from works for solo keyboard. One commends Jeffrey Grossman for his dexterous performance and for choosing one of these rarely-played pieces. Yet as a whole, these 36 Fantasias confirm for us, and probably did for Telemann too, that keyboard music was not his cup of tea.

Jan Dismas Zelenka is another off-beat composer most famous these days for his slightly crazy suite entitiled Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti. (It was  performed last April by Juilliard415.) The trio sonata performed here has elements typical of this eccentric composer: it opens with a melting violin solo repeated by the oboe then broken up and tossed back and forth between the two instrumentalists. Towards the end of a seemingly ordinary first movement Adagio comes a series of dissonances that throw the work into another realm altogether. The second movement Allegro is complex and technically challenging, handled by all with flair and fervor. The bassoon alone has long and intricate runs that would confound most but was played flawlessly by Dominic Teresi. The largo here is reminiscent of the Hipochonrie‘s tango-like Lentement.

There are only two violin sonatas with basso continuo confirmed to have been written by Bach.  The G major BWV 1021 opens with another lyrical and effusive Adagio, similar in style to the earlier Adagio from Zelenka’s trio. Robert Mealy was in his element here, producing a sound that makes one understand why advocates of historically informed practice feel so strongly about the use of original instruments.

The group of Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 were written by Bach as organ exercises for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. They are demanding works for organ requiring the player to be dexterous enough to play an entire bass line using only the pedalboard. There have been many arrangements of these works, most commonly for string trio (violin, viola and cello) but also combinations that include recorders, flutes and even guitars. Gonzalo Ruiz played his own transcription which fell comfortably in his range. This showcase of virtuosity ended a delightful evening that warmed and rewarded an audience courageous enough to have braved the frigid cold outside.

Stan Metzger