The musical landscape in my head has changed a lot lately. I guess this all goes back to seeing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Paris last year. And then last November at Lincoln Center, the Bach Mass in B Minor. In the Saint-Chapelle, it was just thrilling to see musicians sweat through those famous gyrations. In New York, I began to think for the first time about how Bach put vocal music together, how choruses worked in contrast to soloists, how I heard obbligato instruments contrasting to voices while they simultaneously supported them.
It became obvious that it was time for me to listen more, to no longer content myself with the Brandenburgs or Vivaldi’s chiming concerti for mandolin. I needed to acquire a new corpus of music to listen to. Thanks to iTunes and Amazon, I’ve built a grand new library for myself in recent months, and I’ve taken to loading up the iNano for listening on breaks from the office during the day.
My first mix tape was a winner. Here’s what I discovered.
I started off with the first of a two-disc set, Vivaldi: Complete Cello Sonatas, recorded by Ophélie Gailliard and Pulcinella. From the first notes there was an athleticism to the sound of this music that I wasn’t expecting at all.
A lot of that stemmed from ignorance: I didn’t really understand the notion of the sonata form as essentially written for a solo instrument with continuo (at least that’s how it worked during the Baroque). Nor did I know that the sonata was built in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. I was really thinking about the concerto: solo instrument with larger ensemble backing and typically fast-slow-fast structure.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when the Largo from the Cello Sonata No. 3 in A minor came through the earbuds. I just knew that the cello sounded unusually strong and gutsy. You can hear the bow bounce off the strings sometimes, and I like the immediacy of that. After a while I realized that although occasionally a conventional harpsichord is used, mostly the continuo is provided by a guitar. And often the guitar is strummed, adding to the slap and verve of the music. Pulicnella is clearly not your garden-variety chamber ensemble. This is an album I’ve been playing a lot when I sit down at the computer these days.
Next up on the mix was J. S. Bach: Motets, recorded by Philippe Herreweghe with La Chapelle Royale and the Collegium Vocale Gent. I’ve learned enough about Bach interpreters to know that Herreweghe is considered among the best; my ear tells me that he is among the gentlest. That seemed just the right touch for this collection of the six canonical (if you’ll excuse the pun I think is lurking in there somewhere) polyphonic compositions for choir and basso continuo. Sitting on an old stone wall next to the gigantic snowball-white blossoms of an oak-leaf hydrangea, I could close my eyes and imagine that the warmth of the sun was streaming instead through the stained glass of the Sainte-Chapelle onto my upturned face. I was floating, buoyed up by melodies crossing from one voice to another as the Renaissance gave way to a more complicated age.
Third on the list was a selection from an enormous set called Handel Masterworks, which would have occupied 30 CDs worth of shelf space had I invested in physical media. Now I was back on the relatively familiar territory of the concerto form, but I have to admit this was the most disappointing selection on Mix Tape #1. Six concerti, the first half of Handel’s Opus 6 for two violins, cello, and a backing quartet of strings. Although Handel was almost Bach’s exact contemporary, these concerti sound to my ears more like Beethoven than Bach: there is the occasional lilt, but there’s far more grandiose unison playing that swells heroically. Maybe it’s all those violins, but this left me cold. I’ve always had a preference for the colors that woodwinds and reeds add to an ensemble, and the relative sameness of timbre produced by massed strings (even on such a small scale as this) doesn’t capture my ear or my imagination.
I returned to Vivaldi for the final movement of my mix tape. If you’d asked me six months ago to guess how many bassoon concerti had ever been written, I might have counted on the fingers of one hand before answering. To discover that Vivaldi penned 39 in a short period of time is another flabbergasting discovery. To listen to even eight of them, the first of five discs of the Complete Bassoon Concertos as recorded by the English Chamber Orchestra, is equally astonishing. I’ve known one of them, the B-flat concerto called La Notte (RV 501), for decades and always thought it an aberration, the only possible way of turning the bassoon into an expressive voice that has humor and joy, serenity and sadness to offer. The best part of listening to this selection was knowing that I have thirty more bassoon concerti to discover somewhere down the road.
And there’s far more territory to traverse in all, even if I limit myself to these three composers. But there are other Baroque gems I haven’t listened to in a while and that are due for time in the rotation: Albinoni’s Oboe Concerti and Telemann’s Tafelmusik, to name just two. I’ve even bought the new album of old concert recordings by Yes, Progeny, that promises to improve the quality of material that was released forty years ago on the miserably mastered Yessongs. But that’s going to have to wait a while; I’m just not in the mood for prog rock right now.