Studied Carlessness - A Duo Of Three & A Trio Of FourFriday, April 01, 2011
I was sitting on the front row (left, so I could see Marc Destrubé and his baroque violin up close) on Friday night. This was the last Early Music Vancouver concert (not really last as the programme will be repeated this Sunday, at 3pm, at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver) until August 10th’s Purcell's King Arthur at the Chan.
There was an empty seat on my left. A ghost was sitting in it. Or at least I imagined it. It was the ghost of my mother who would have done anything to be there in real person to listen to two masters (the other harpsichordist Alex Weimann) play four (of six) of Bach’s Sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, BwV 1014, 1015, 1016 and 1018.
In my youth I remember when my mother brought one of the earliest version of Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos. It was an LP recording by the Dutch Concertgebouw Orchestra (since 1985 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). My mother played the records and she cried. She told me, “This is my desert island music.” And she then began to tell me of the wonder that Bach was for her. I like the music and I must say I was not overly enthusiastic.
It wasn’t until the early 60s that a couple of jazzed up recordings, one by Jacques Loussier the other by the Swingle Singers led me into exploring Bach un-jazzed.
I have been a fan of Bach since. As I watched the emtpy seat I knew that my mother had no access to the equisite music I was listening to. In Mexico or Argentina (and certainly in the Manila where she was born) there would have been no opportunity to hear live all six of the Brandenburg Concertos (soemthing that I experience most recently here in Vancouver) or the smaller more intimate Bach compositions that we are now able to listen to in Vancouver via the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Early Music Vancouver or the many recordings now available that weren’t around in my mother’s time. It has never been yet why that one empty seat next to me?
Consider that Alex Weimann (the musical director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra) explained all the highlights of each of the four movements of the four Sonatas. His explanation was hands on and he made his instrument, the harpsichord (one that I have discounted and ignored for so many years) shine.
When Destrubé (leader of the Smithsonian based Axelrod QuartetM and Weimann played the sonatas my enjoyment was enriched as I looked forward to the particularities of the movements.
By now I have been to enough baroque concerts to understand that nothing is exactly as it seems. My education into this anomaly began in 1993 when I purchased one of my desert island discs, Corelli’s Sonatas for violin and cello or harpsichord op.5. This monumentally beautiful work listed Monica Hugget on violin, Mitzi Meyerson on harpsichord, organ, Sarah Cunningham on cello and Nigel North playing archlute, theorbo and baroque guitar.
I accosted my friend Graham Walker who knows about these things and he explained, that Corelli’s work for two instruments really was a trio sonata and that trio sonatas usually had four instruments!
An explanation for this was was clearly set out by Marc Destrubé in Friday night’s concert program notes:
The six sonatas for harpsichord and violin, BWV 1014 -1019, represent one of J.S. Bach’s most important compositional innovations: the transformation of the baroque solo sonata and trio sonata, the two most prevalent chamber music forms of the baroque, into what became later as the ‘duo sonata, music for two equal instruments (instead of a solo instrument with an accompanying basso continuo), as later exemplified by the sonatas of Mozart and ten of Beethoven. In fact what Bach really did in these six sonatas is to write trio sonatas for two instruments: the upper voice of the harpsichord replaced the second ‘solo’ voice of the trio. And in case this has already confused you, baroque trio sonatas are normally performed by four people, with a second instrument, usually cello or viola da gamba, doubling the bass line played by the left hand of the harpsichordist.
In a nutshell think of rock band trio with an extra bass guitar. In baroque parlance that bass accompaniment is called continuo which means in-the-background-all of-the-time!
For anybody (a bit on the callous and even somewhat cynical about things) who had listened to the concert without any of Alex Weimann’s explanations, the music would have appeared as a casual romp by two very good musicians. But Weiman had mentioned that the fourth movement (Vivace) of the Sonata in f minor, BWV 1018 was very difficult. He added that the left hand part (the bass line) of the harpsichord was challenging as if Bach had a bit of a perverse sense of humor.
I concentrated and watched the performers play the Vivace and it all seemed smooth and effortless. Destrubé’s expression was one of angelic pleasure, of someone about to dunking a fresh croissant into a hot café latte. Weiman had called this sprezzatura. Here is the definition according to Wikipedia:
Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.”The word has entered the English language; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "studied carelessness."
I like that, studied carelessness. My mother would have smiled.
Early Music Vancouver has never been a stuffy organization of the overly serious. After all there was artistic director, José Verstappen in socked Birkenstocks, amusingly clashing with his Order of Canada pin on his vest. In an effort to further unstuff, Early Music Vancouver has hired the services of one Jurgen Gothe (he of wine, food, good music and Fernet Branca) to act as a specially dour master of ceremonies. Gothe was funny and brief (twice as funny) and I think that this portrait that I took of him some years ago, epresses what I felt at the end of the concert. It was good to the last drop.