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Informal Chamber Setting for Spanish Baroque at MFA


The Boston Museum Trio concert on Sunday, March 14, was given in connection with the exhibition of works by the great Spanish painter of still-lifes, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), a fine show which I had seen last year at the National Gallery in Washington.

Daniel Stepner, baroque violin, Eliot Fisk, guitar, and John Gibbons, harpsichord, were the artists in this amiable program, which sounded well in the moderate-sized Remis Auditorium at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The ensemble had a well-formed intimacy of sound but also a reassuring informality as the performers talked about the music they played rather than relying on printed program notes. The chamber setting also was appropriate to instrumentation flexibility, entirely in keeping with Baroque practice, where music written for one instrument might be easily and effectively played on another.

The performers explained that although only one of the five composers was a native Spaniard, two of the others lived and worked in Spain. Another, J. S. Bach, was represented by his famous “Ciaconna” from the D minor Partita for solo violin (BWV 1004 — that number got left off the program somehow), in Eliot Fisk’s powerful transcription for guitar; the chaconne form, it was pointed out, derived from a fast dance that originated in Spanish America and was transplanted back to Europe, where it was widely adopted at a slower tempo. This was the third Bach Chaconne I had heard in less than a year, after Brahms’s arrangement for piano, left hand alone, played by Leon Fleisher in New York last June, and Thomas Zehetmair’s performance of the original violin version at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Washington’s birthday; all of these were strong reminders that the instrumentation hardly mattered in bringing off the enormous and amazing architecture of the piece.

The Fandango that began the concert was by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), who spent more than 20 years at the court in Madrid; but it had a startling resemblance to a more famous Fandango for harpsichord by Antonio Soler (1729-1783). Both works are long, repetitive ostinato pieces relentlessly and irresistibly emphasizing D-minor tonic and dominant harmony, over and over, with very occasional diversions into the relative major. Even though Boccherini’s was an arrangement, there was plenty of opportunity for virtuosic improvisation, with wide skips in the violin over and across the strings (the baroque violin uses a shorter and de-curved bow), and a big cadenza for solo guitar.

The Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), a contemporary of Bach, wrote prolifically in many genres, including opera and sacred music, but remains best known today for his more than 500 one-movement sonatas for harpsichord and other solo keyboard instruments, works which gave stability and renown to the bipartite sonata form. We heard a short Sonata for violin and harpsichord in G major, in four movements, and after the intermission, four of the most famous harpsichord sonatas, from Scarlatti’s first publication of Essercizi per il gravicembalo, published in 1738 (in London of all places). Scarlatti’s exploration of the short sonata form pushed significant boundaries in the days before Haydn and Mozart expanded it and took it into the orchestra, and Scarlatti certainly approached Bach in his imaginative roving tonality and chromatic harmony. These sonatas were remarkable also for their athletic technique, requiring frequent crossing of the left hand over the right for single notes, and back again. There was a moment of delightful camaraderie with the audience when John Gibbons explained how he had first learned the D major Sonata on the piano decades ago, and decided to re-learn it with Scarlatti’s specific instructions for crossed hands on the harpsichord, a difficult proposition when playing parallel thirds because even on the separate manuals the two hands are closely positioned one above the other. In the end he decided not to finish playing this one, lest his fingers entirely confuse each other, and I was reminded of the place in Schumann’s C major Fantasy for piano where the crossed hands, on collision course in opposite directions, actually are notated to play four notes in succession with both hands (LH 1234 and RH 5432). Gibbons concluded with the famous Sonata in G minor, known as the “Cat’s Fugue,” so called because, according to legend, Scarlatti’s cat walked along the keyboard, striking the rising notes G, B flat, E flat, F sharp, B flat and C sharp.

Antonio Soler, a monk at the Escorial, was not quite as prolific a composer as Scarlatti (who in fact was his teacher), though he wrote 120 sonatas in addition to the famous Fandango; his principal output was in sacred music, including 28 settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week (other composers who used these texts include Thomas Tallis, François Couperin, and Igor Stravinsky). One of these settings, dating from 1763 and originally for soprano, violin, and fortepiano, was effectively arranged by our group; sometimes the violin, and at other times the guitar, took over the soprano line. This expressive piece was in F minor, an unusually somber key for guitar or for violin.

The Roman Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), the oldest composer represented on the program, never got to Spain but was happy to write a celebrated set of variations on “La Folia,” a famous Spanish ground-bass melody widely adopted for dancing. (Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, for piano, refer to this work.) Corelli’s variations, originally for violin and continuo, here were effectively adapted to the trio ensemble. Some of the variations were without the violin, others involved a stichomythy of violin and guitar alternating one bar at a time. Mostly the variations were in 3/4 meter, the traditional pace of the dance, while some broadened out expressively to 4/4. As in the Fandango that began the concert, there was a lot of opportunity for bursts of virtuosity, including some rasgueado strumming that reminded one of flamenco style. I lost count of how many variations there were, but in the excitement of the ensemble, that didn’t matter.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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