Baroque Chamber Music Performed as if at Home

United StatesUnited States Baroque Collection: Boismortier, C. P. E. Bach, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Böddecker, Corelli, Telemann, Reali, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 8.12.2015 (SSM)

John Gibbons, harpsichord
Bella Hristova, violin
Ani Kavafian, violin
Ida Kavafian, violin
Efe Baltacigil, cello
Dane Johansen, cello
Paul O’Dette, theorbo
Tara Helen O’Connor, flute

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier: Sonata in E minor for Flute and Violin, Op. 51, No. 2
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Sonata in B minor for Flute, Violin and Continuo, W. 143
Antonio Vivaldi: Sonata in A minor for Cello and Continuo, RV 43
François Couperin: La Parnasse, ou L’Apothéose de Corelli for 2 Violins and Continuo
Philipp Friedrich Böddecker: Sonata in D minor for Violin and Continuo from Sacra partitura
Arcangelo Corelli: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 5, No. 5
Georg Philipp Telemann: Trio in A minor for Flute, Violin and Continuo, TWV 42:a4

Giovanni Reali: La Folia for Two Violins, Cello and Continuo, Op. 1 (1709)


There was something especially homey and warm surrounding this particular performance: familiar faces on stage; an elderly crowd, many of whom knew each other; well-mannered (except for one cell phone at the very conclusion of a work); and a tempered applauding of the excellent performance and performers. Indeed, much of the program consisted of works written for use in the comfort of the bourgeois living-room: amateur musicians playing for themselves or for friends and family. The title pages of these published scores often had as a selling point the fact that multiple combinations of instruments could be accommodated. A trio like the Boismortier played here might state on the score’s cover that it could be for violin and flute or two flutes or two violins. Boismortier said about his Op. 34 sonatas in four parts that any combination of “transverse flutes, violins or other instruments” would do, even going so far as to imply that in dire need a recorder (the most common amateur’s instrument) could be substituted.

Boismortier is one of many under-appreciated composers of the Baroque. He was no great innovator, but he was capable of writing charming pieces. His music is rustic, often sounding as if were written for a musette or hurdy-gurdy, instruments for which he did in fact compose. I would have liked a little more levity in the playing and a better dynamic match-up of the two instruments: the flute dominated the violin here. All the pieces were played on modern instruments in a traditional 20th-century manner, and I wondered why at least some of the vibrato wasn’t held back.

The second eldest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, C. P. E. Bach was the brightest and most successful of the Bach boys. His public and sacred works reveal little of his capabilities, but his more personal pieces, like the hundred or so sonatas for clavichord and small instrumental groups, were composed for himself. This piece was written in 1731 when he was a student, and it seems to look back to his father’s more structured writing. I say “seems” because the version played is the 1747 revision; the original 1731 work is not extant. Then there’s the density of the writing. In CPE’s middle and later years, the bass line became simpler  ̶  so schoolbook simple, in fact, that CPE’s bass lines in many sonatas and trios almost seem as if they were overreacting to J. S. Bach’s heavy and melodic bass lines. Again, the performance was sterling in spite of the thick varnish that an historical performance would have avoided.

Virtuosity and affect are key words for the Vivaldi cello sonata RV 43. This sonata is unusual in that it is in four movements, two of which are Largo, just about as slow as you can go. Add to this a performance in the key of A minor and you have about as much seriousness as Vivaldi produced. If there needed to be a best-moment-in-concert vote, I would nominate the sonata’s second Largo. Baltacigil took his time drawing each poignant note from his instrument.

The set of programmatic movements by Couperin, “La Parnasse de Corelli,” is a most unusual work and difficult to categorize. Although the piece is infrequently performed, when it is done, often the text for each section is read aloud. This makes for a more formal production, but is truer in spirit than when there is no text at all. The “lyrics,” unlike in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons where references to birds or storms are easy for a composer to emulate, are more abstract. Some works of the Baroque are fine in modern attire, but I don’t think so here. Instrumental coloring depends on using an appropriate instrument. Virtuosity aside (praise again to members and here especially to the Kavafian sisters), this work demands a lighter and looser touch than it received.

Böddeckker is one of the composers who flourished during a time when substantial changes were in the works. This sonata, completed around 1650, was an early work for violin and continuo. It’s complex and difficult to perform, but Bella Hristova’s performance was outstanding. Showing little strain, she handled the torturous passages admirably. The work must have been a shock to the composer’s contemporaries, who would have to face even more difficult music during the 1660s with Biber, Schmelzer and Pandolphi all trying to one-up each other in stylus phantasticus

Corelli’s sonata is the only work on the program in a major key. Here his distinctive style is a move away from the wildness of the early Baroque to the more refined middle Baroque. His influence was a major force on musical style, and his school ultimately triumphed in the long battle between the Italian and French schools. Although his sonatas followed a style called “church style,” there is no religiosity here. Only virtuosity remained, most significantly in Ani Kafavian’s blazing final movement.

Telemann’s production was enormous: hundreds of works in every and all formats and styles of the day. He is the ideal composer for anyone looking for a work to perform with any unique combination of instruments. Have three violins handy, no problem; violin and oboe, got that; two horns, yes indeed. You couldn’t possibly have one for three horns and violin? Sure do. Here we had a trio sonata, performed enthusiastically and needing just a little less vibrato on Ani Kafavian’s part for it to be nearly perfect.

La Folia, in some form, dates back well before its first publication in the mid-1650s. A number of composers wrote variations on its theme: Lully, Marais, J. S . Bach, C. P. E. Bach, Liszt and Grieg to name a few. Like its sibling, the Chaconne, the unique rhythms of La Folia are awe-inspiring, catchy and jaunting. It’s the kind of musical warhorse that gives a performer the freedom do what he or she does best, and musical directives are at the whim of the instrumentalist. Here, a speeding up of the tempo to an insane pace ended an imaginative concert.

Stan Metzger

Leave a Comment