United States Corelli: Juilliard415, Monica Huggett (director), Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, 25.4.2014 (SSM) Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7 in D major Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 5 in G minor Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 11 in D minor Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2 in B-flat major Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 4 in A minor Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 3 in C major Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 4 in F major Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 6 in F major
There were many fine moments in this, the first of two concerts devoted to the seminal Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli. The two concerti grossi from the composer’s most famous set, the Opus 6, were warmly played. Monica Huggett ceded her role as soloist in the trios and violin sonatas to give her Juilliard students the chance to display their skills.
What was lacking had little to do with the performance itself and, to my mind, a lot to do with the composer. I don’t question Corelli’s important role in the development of the concerto or his influence on composers such as Geminiani, Locatelli and Tartini. He was revered in his time and his published sets of sonatas, trios and concerti grossi were extraordinarily popular. But contemporary renown is not the best basis on which to judge the quality of a composer’s work: Salieri’s operas were more highly regarded in their time than Mozart’s, while Graupner and Telemann were considered better candidates for a position in Leipzig than Bach.
Great Baroque music is complex, often convoluted, rich in counterpoint, willing to go to the edge of dissonance and free to roam to foreign modulations. At its best it is music that is rhythmically complex, filled with color and written as if were being improvised at the moment. The French word “baroque” means “irregularly shaped,” and composers of Corelli’s generation and before wrote music that was irregular and misbehaved: Froberger, Schmeltzer, Legranzi, Muffat, Frescobaldi, Biber. Michael Taylor in The New Grove Italian Baroque Masters writes that Corelli’s music is “predictable, over-simple or even commonplace.” He then says that the contrapuntal movements are “admittedly too stiff when they are strict and too haphazard when they are free.” Corelli himself is quoted as saying his compositions were written to “show off.” For whatever reason, he limited his scores to a range of notes that didn’t go above D on the highest string and, so the story goes, refused to play a higher A note as a member of an orchestra conducted by Handel.
Corelli’s music is not only limited in range but in color and orchestration as well. Vivaldi might have written one concerto 500 times, but variety of instrumentation was never an issue. Corelli limited his compositions to strings only, but Vivaldi ran the gamut from solo violin concerti to the most imaginative combinations such as the Concerto con multi stumenti,RV 558, for two mandolins, two chalumeaux (a predecessor to the modern day clarinet), two therobos, cello and strings. Corelli’s mostly brief movements never seem to go very far from their initial statement. His music may lay well in the hands of the string player, but not well in the ears of this listener.
The playing of the students assigned the solo violin parts improved in technique and confidence from first sonata to last, making me think that the order of performers paralleled a progression in school training and curriculum. Francis Liu and Anne Lester comfortably handled the double stopping as well as cadenzas. Laura Rubenstein, joining in as second violinist to Monica Huggett on one of the trio sonatas, couldn’t quite compete with Huggett. Often cellists are not given much attention, but the two here, Caroline Nicolas and Sarah Stone, really had their work to do and it didn’t go unnoticed.
Corelli used various incomplete cadences to join movements without pause. If pauses between movements are taken as a chance to turn pages of a score, as was done here, it leaves the audience hanging, waiting for the next movement to resolve the suspension.
The final Concerto Grosso in F major brought the ensemble together again as the bookend to the opening Concerto Grosso, with Monica Huggett joining in as the leading voice of the concertino.
One last point. Why bother to include in the program that it is “strictly prohibited” to take photographs or make videos when nothing is done about audience members blatantly raising their cell phones to record the performance?