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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keeping Classical Music to Ourselves

Heartbreak of Rejection Dept.: I wrote program notes for several CDs issued on the Dorian Recordings label when it was based in Troy, NY, and used a nearby, acoustically steller old music hall for its sessions. Most of the assignments came through my good friend Brian Levine, who, after Dorian's demise, went on to become executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation. Most of the artists I worked with told me that they enjoyed my writing, which was gratifying because my earliest music education came from such notes, and I like to pass along that tradition while keeping what I write cheerful and accessible. Only once were my notes rejected, and with a rather resounding thud. Judy Linsenberg, director of the Baroque ensemble Musica Pacifica, decreed that what I wrote for a CD featuring music of Francesco Mancini sported a style "much more informal and chatty than I am comfortable with." There would be no salvaging the notes, she decided. "(I)t would make the most sense just to have them rewritten by someone else." Needless to say, someone who could pound the information into the dry, academic submission that sounds smart to would-be scholars. But now you can buy the CD – and it's a delightful program that I highly recommend – and throw away the notes that come with it. Because here are the ones that belong there.


Francesco Mancini: Concerti da Camera

Nero made a special stop in Naples just to be able to sing with the locals. That’s how culturally important the city has been through the ages. During the 13th and 14th centuries, a synthesis of French and local culture resulted in a flowering of artistic activity in Naples that attracted visits from such literary masters as Boccaccio and Petrarch. When the Kingdom of Naples came under Aragonese rule in the middle of the 15th century, its cultural life grew even more active and important: A magnificent library was established, great architecture flourished, and musical life in the chapels achieved renown.

Naples became home to so many outstanding organists in the 16th century that it became known for its innovations in keyboard music. Within a century, it was the place to go for musical studies.

That’s also because of the large orphanages the city ran. They derived a significant part of their operating income from participation of the figlioli, the children, in local church services. In order to command good fees, it was important to keep the youngsters in good training. Music schools sprang up at these institutions, schools that eventually gained world renown.

In a country dominated by the sacred strictures of Rome, Naples went its own somewhat more secular way. Opera became the city’s biggest claim to fame once that genre was introduced (around 1650), and Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas reigned supreme. His instrumental works were thus overshadowed, although Musica Pacifica presented eight chamber concertos in a previous Dorian recording (Alessandro Scarlatti: Concerti da Camera, DOR 93192).


Francesco Mancini (1672-1737) was a native of Naples who remained in that city his entire life. Naples was an opera city, so Mancini wrote operas, the first of which was performed in 1702. At least 18 others were premiered there as well. In his work, at the height of the late Baroque, he anticipated what was to come in the Classical era with the careful structure he brought to his writing. Stylistically, he is regarded as one of the important bridges between the two eras.

But he remained in the shadow of Scarlatti. After spending eight years as an organist at the Conservatorio Della Pietà Di Turkana, where he studied, he tried to snag a position as musical director at the Naples Court. This was Scarlatti’s job, but the older composer was traveling, possibly following his longtime patron, the Duke of Medinaceli. Nevertheless, it took another year before the post was officially declared vacant, and then the director’s job was given to someone else.

Politics played a tricky part in such appointments, so Mancini tried a shrewd tactic. As Austrian troops neared the city in 1707, on the brink of wresting the territory from Spain, Mancini borrowed some court musicians and traveled to pay homage to the commander of the Imperial forces. He celebrated the start of Hapsburg rule with a newly composed Te Deum, finally winning an appointment to the position he’d so long craved. It was a short-lived pleasure. A year later, the Austrian viceroy invited Scarlatti back, and Mancini had to wait (although on full salary) another 17 years to get his job back.

His fame as an opera composer reached England and one work in particular, Idaspe, became a great success there, thanks in part to scene depicting a fight between Nicolini, a popular castrato, and a lion. Mancini also gained renown for his oratorios and some 200 cantatas.

In 1725, the year Alessandro Scarlatti died, a collection of 24 concerti appeared that included works by him and several other Neapolitan composers, including Mancini, to whom twelve of the collected works are attributed. Six of them are included on this recording.

Most of the pieces are scored for recorder, two violins, and continuo, so in both instrumentation and form the works hover between sonata and full-blown concerto, and in fact are variously described as one or the other or, even in the original collection, both.


Although Francesco Durante spent most of his creative years in Naples, he doesn’t seem to have crossed paths with Mancini except insofar as Durante was invited to compose music for one of the tragedies written by Duke Annibale Marchese, collected in the Duke’s Tragedie cristiane, which sported contributions by Mancini and others.

Durante (1684-1755) was trained in Rome and Naples; upon settling in the latter city, he gained renown both as a composer of sacred music, setting him apart from his opera-writing coevals, and as a pedagogue, sending forth a generation of composers who would win acclaim, Pergolesi and Paisiello among them.

He became embroiled in a feud with the composer Leonardo Leo for many years, a conflict that attracted factions of “Durantists” and “Leists” over the nature of emotions and church music. Durante maintained that the heart fueled such work, while the Leists held out for the head.

Durante’s eight concerti per quartetto, of which the second, in g minor, is included on this recording, were written in the late 1730s or early 40s and show off a wide range of form and style, not least of which is the influence of Handel.


Like Alessandro, his father, Domenico Scarlatti journeyed quite a bit from his native Naples, but Domenico (1685-1757) found conditions attractive enough at one destination – Spain – to stay there for the last 30 years of his life.

Not surprisingly, his father was his first teacher. At 15, Domenico secured a post as organist at the viceregal chapel where his dad was director; when Alessandro took to the road shortly thereafter, Domenico remained behind, writing operas. He apparently was too good at it for his father’s taste: a returned Alessandro dispatched him to Venice (in the company of the aforementioned Nicolini), where Domenico is said to have befriended Handel and journeyed with that composer to Rome. Legend has it that the two engaged in what jazz pianists would call a “cutting contest,” at which Handel was deemed the better organist, Scarlatti the superior harpsichordist.

When he left Italy to work in Lisbon and, later, Madrid, Scarlatti quit writing operas and turned to the harpsichord sonatas that now are most often associated with his name. It was from his operas, however, that a collection of sinfonias was drawn (most of them written as overtures). A manuscript of 17 such works is in the library of the Paris Conservatoire, 16 of which are reliably identified as Scarlatti’s. The first of which, in A Major, is recorded here.
The Music

What’s most striking about all of these pieces is the inventiveness that courses through each movement, testimony to the musical fertility of Naples of this era. Mancini is credited as an important link from the Baroque era to the Classical, but, like all composers of his era, he was very familiar with the works of his Renaissance forebears.

Unique to the Baroque era was the concertato style, helped along by Gabrieli, which gave us the technique of placing a basso continuo beneath a melody that’s shared by several voices – something the pieces on this recording have in common. Another development was the recitative, which originated in vocal music but quickly spread to the solo sonata, and which can be heard here in the melodically rich slow movements.

All of the works on this recording follow the form of the Baroque church sonata, or sonata di chiesa, which started as a five-movement form but soon dropped to four in a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern in which contrapuntal textures are featured, usually in the second movement.

All of the Mancini concertos are scored for recorder, two violins, and continuo, an unusual combination that provokes the theory that these were written-to-order pieces. The recorder parts aren’t as demanding as the violin parts, and thus it’s speculated that they were commissioned by a well-to-do player.

Mancini: Concerto 19 in e minor (Allegrissimo; Larghetto; Fuga; Moderato; Allegro)

This and the last concerto on the disc are the only ones in five-movement form, and both enliven what’s usually a slow introduction.

In fact, the opening Allegrissimo gives a taste of what’s to come in both this concerto and the rest of them, with its zesty use of melodic imitation and virtuoso writing for the violins. The short Larghetto that follows is a pleasant, plaintive sigh: six descending eighth notes are picked up by a different instrumentalist in each of the first four measures, gradually giving way to simple block chords that stroll, with eighth-note filigree, to a peaceful finish. It’s a nice prelude to the fugue that follows, in which the theme – stated first in the continuo – sounds at first as if it’s in the wrong time signature, making it easy to spot each appearance of the figure in the various voices.

Every good melody inspires a little tension as you wonder how it will resolve, and then you get the release of hearing that resolution. In the ensuing Moderato, the tension is ratcheted up by the delightful ornamentation that the players add, Linsenberg on recorder in particular. The concluding Allegro is a happy gigue, of the Italian 12/8 variety, punctuated at moments by a bouncing figure in the violins that leaps across all four strings before coming to a brisk finish.

Mancini: Concerto 10 in Bb major (Larghetto; Allegro; Largo; Allegro)

Here is the four-movement form more typical of these works in this era, starting with a Handelian Larghetto whose theme has the dignity of a processional. Listen to the ornaments added after the repeat to hear how effectively such a theme can be enhanced without losing any of its character. In two sections, each with a repeat, this is one of the longer first movements in the collection.

A fugue follows, with a sunny three-bar theme that eventually works down into a four-note fragment that’s tossed around as a contrast. Contrast is a byword of this concerto, and this merry Allegro takes us into a plaintive, Vivaldi-esque Largo of a mere eight measures in which the recorder soars over an insistent accompaniment by the rest of the ensemble.

Barely over a minute long, the final Allegro is a merry duet between recorder and violin. It’s in ABA form, the middle section providing only a slight contrast before the A section returns, considerably condensed.

Durante: Concerto in g minor (Affetuoso; Presto; Largo affetuoso; Allegro)

Scored for string quartet with harpsichord continuo, this piece goes in for fewer of the tempo contrasts found in Mancini’s concertos but still abounds in surprises. Take the opening phrase, a double-dotted half note followed by a downward sweep of five eighth notes, the stately lift of three quarter notes and a drop of a fifth to a dotted half note. Stated by the first violin, it’s overlapped by a second violin echo – but the echo varies the rhythm of the three quarter notes, sneaking in a little syncopation. Subtle, but enough to steal your attention. And almost every time that downward sweep of eighth notes recurs, it leads into something different, eventually changing into a more chromatic passage that foreshadows the fugue that follows.

A six-note motif starts the fugue, a tune that’s repeated with an ever-widening interval between its last two notes; this and the theme’s rhythmic quirks are characteristics that get a full measure of exploration throughout the movement.

Violin and viola start the Largo playing eighth notes in unison, but they’re out of sync by a sixteenth note – a device used throughout the movement to give a sense of urgency to its otherwise easygoing fabric. Like the Largo, the concluding Allegro is marked Affetuoso, and the tenderness thus suggested prevails even as the piece bounces to its finish. This is a concerto movement for two violins, which sparkle throughout.

Mancini: Concerto 20 in c minor (Comodo; Fuga - Allegro; Lento; Comodo)

Once again, the opening is a recorder showpiece, with written-in filigree and improvised ornamentation enhancing the movement’s Classical sound. It’s followed by Mancini’s most Bach-like fugue, started by an attention-getting four quarter notes, an eighth-rest breath, then three measures of eighth notes that surprise us by pausing not on the tonic but on the note above, resolving the phrase only in the next measure, as the next voice comes in.

Bursts of repeated notes underscore the fugue; in the Lento, the whole ensemble breaks into slow blocks of eighth-notes to punctuate a movement that’s almost all about texture. The final movement, in an easy three-quarter-time, is brief and to the point, and puts recorder and violin in unison at significant moments for a fat, unusual sound.

Mancini: Concerto 6 in d minor (Amoroso; Allegro; Largo; Allegro)

The recorder starts a stately opening with the elegant hesitation of dotted notes, echoed by the two violins in harmony. We hear that process of imitation throughout the movement which, along with the following Allegro, would qualify as a French overture, a style characterized by a slow movement with dotted rhythms that gives way to a brisker fugue.

In two dense measures, Mancini sets a four-voice fugue in motion that uses the trick of breaking up the theme into ever smaller and faster units to keep a sense of flying pace without ever imposing a hurry. Soon all of the instruments are tossing sixteenth-note fragments around before the theme returns in voices a half-measure apart.

The Largo again is a recorder showpiece, while the concluding Allegro fools us for four measures into thinking it’s in three-quarter time. The true (two-four) meter asserts itself and we’re off for what’s very much a recorder concerto movement, enhanced by Linsenberg’s tasteful ornaments.

D. Scarlatti: Sinfonia in A major (Grave; Presto; Adagio; Allegrissimo Presto)

String quartet and continuo again, although in this case it’s three violins and cello. Scarlatti visits Handel country in the opening movement, which isn’t surprising, considering that the two composers were thrown together during their travels and thus surely knew one another’s work. The opening is brief, as are the last two movements, only one of which exceeds 30 seconds, and only barely. Which showcases the moto perpetuo Presto all the more. From the entrance of the first violin with two solo measures of frantic sixteenth notes, the pace doesn’t let up for the two minutes of this movement.

The cello gets an uncharacteristic spotlight in the eight-measure-long Adagio, while the concluding Presto is an Italian gigue.

Mancini: Concerto 14 in g minor (Comodo; Fuga - Allegro; Larghetto; Allegro)

Insistent eighth notes appear every few measures in the accompaniment to the first movement, as if to hurry the recorder along its way. It starts with a six-eight feel that soon shifts into figures more appropriate to the three-quarter time in which this is marked. Then Mancini gets down to business and shows how to write a fugue, with a jaunty Allegro that keeps the subject aloft like a colorful balloon. Three lower voices prepare us for the recorders eventual entrance, by which time the violins a batting fragments of the melody back and forth.

 A longer-than-usual Larghetto once again focuses on the recorder. It’s a song without words, reminding us of the vocal origins of this type of writing, and how easily it grew into the Classical concerto, which certainly describes the Larghetto and the concluding Allegro, which suggests the kind of jaunty finale you’d later find on a Haydn concerto.

Mancini: Concerto 17 in a minor (Allegro; Andante; Spiritoso; Largo; Allegro)

Perhaps it’s the fact that the opening Allegro is so energetic that Mancini gives us a more thoughtful and densely textured fugue. That first movement starts with a harmonious, pastoral feeling, but faster figures creep in until the movement is a riot of sixteenth notes, coming to a sudden stop for what turns out to be the Andante, a study in block chord textures with the recorder adding movement with its ornamentation.

There’s a fugue hidden in the Spiritoso movement, but with so much else going on, it’s easy to lose track of the figure. It could be too much of the Classical breaking through, but it’s really just Mancini’s inventiveness, countering the quarter notes of the fugue subject with repeated eighth-note figures for, as usual, very striking contrasts.

The spirit of counterpoint persists into the next movement, which features many layers of imitation. Barely have you heard the first violin introduce the theme when, a half-measure later, it’s echoed by the second violin and soon moves to every voice. And then it’s a gigue in the French style to bring this collection to a sunny finish.
– May 2000 

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