Bach: French Suite no. 5 for Solo Piano, BWV 816

Haydn: Keyboard Concertino in C Major, Hob.XIV 11

Mendelssohn: Selections from Songs Without Words

Mendelssohn: Double Concerto in d minor

From 1717 to 1723, Bach was Director of Music at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, north

of Leipzig. His employer, Prince Leopold, was an accomplished musician and started

the court musical establishment in 1707 with three players. By the time of Bach’s

appointment, the ensemble had grown to nearly twenty performers equipped with

a fine set of instruments. It was for these musicians that Bach wrote many of his

outstanding instrumental works, including the Brandenburg Concerti, the orchestral

suites, the violin concerti, and much of his chamber and keyboard music. The first

four of the so-called French Suites must have been composed at Cöthen, since they

appear in a manuscript collection of six such works dating from 1723, the year Bach

left Cöthen for Leipzig. The last two suites in the 1723 set—now known independently

as BWV 818 and BWV 819—had been replaced with the French Suites nos. 5 and 6 by

1725, when the collection, much revised, reached its definitive state. The six French

Suites (BWV 812–817) form a pendant to the earlier English Suites, though they are

smaller in scale (they eschew the elaborate opening preludes of the English Suites),

more melodic in character, and lighter in texture. The source of the term “French” in

the title is unknown. The heading of the 1725 manuscript was written in French, but

so was that for the English Suites, and neither one mentioned “French” or “English”

in its title. The French Suites follow the standard succession of stylized dances that

composes the Baroque form, established in German practice with the works of Johann Jakob Froberger around 1650: allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue. The Fifth Suite

includes a gavotte, bourrée, and loure.

—Dr. Richard E. Rodda 

Haydn composed the Concertino in C Major, Hob. XIV: 11, for keyboard, two violins, and cello in 1760, near the end of roughly a decade spent as a freelance composer in Vienna and shortly before beginning his tenure as Kapellmeister at the court of the Hungarian Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. (The composer spent the majority of his professional career, from 1761 to 1790, in Esterházy’s employ.) This early period of his career also yielded about fifteen symphonies, numerous keyboard sonatas, trios, divertimentos, concerti, string trios, and partitas for wind band, and possibly the Opus 2 string quartets, nos. 1 and 2. The C Major Concertino is one of at least fifteen keyboard concerti that Haydn composed; precisely how many he produced is difficult to determine as there are a number whose authenticity is uncertain. The modest instrumental forces required suggests that the little-known keyboard concertinos were intended for domestic entertainment rather than the concert hall. Whereas the rhetorical content and grand sonic environment of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s concerti for soloist with orchestra come more readily to mind as the Classical piano concerto rubric, Haydn’s C Major Concertino transports that aesthetic to a piercingly intimate setting. (Mozart explored a similar sound with arrangements for piano and string quartet of three of his piano concerti, K. 413–415.) The elegance, clarity, and wit of the concertino’s language are vintage Haydn. Despite their scale, Haydn’s concertinos nevertheless spotlight the keyboard soloist with brilliant, concertante writing, supported by an impeccably sculpted conversational accompaniment in the strings.

—Patrick Castillo

The Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words)—of which Mendelssohn composed eight

volumes comprising six songs apiece over his career—provide an essential snapshot of

Romanticism. They are, first and foremost, a paean to the sovereignty of melody. They also reference, in an abstract way, the Romantic generation’s preoccupation with poetry, as reflected in the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, and others: Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words  succeed in capturing the clarity and expressivity of sung texts, but they do so relying solely on musical character, without the aid of poetry. Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd writes that the Songs without Words “broached in a different way the ability of music to convey extramusical ideas.” Indeed, Robert Schumann surmised that Mendelssohn originally composed them as songs with words and then withdrew the texts. Todd continues: “The new genre, which blurred the lines between the song and the character piece, later enjoyed great success and became synonymous

with Mendelssohnism.”

—Patrick Castillo

Mendelssohn composed his Concerto in d minor for Violin, Piano, and Strings in 1823,

as a fourteen-year-old prodigy. The Double Concerto reflects a dichotomy between the

Baroque influence on Mendelssohn’s music and the emerging Romantic energy that

would come to define the nineteenth century. The violin, a brilliant, melodic instrument, is generally entrusted with music of soaring lyricism, while the piano, Mendelssohn exploits for its massive sonority. The work begins with the strings issuing a contrapuntal theme, reminiscent of a Bach fugue but infused with the spirit of Romantic Sturm und Drang. As the theme unfolds, the contrapuntal texture grows increasingly intricate. Mendelssohn introduces a long-breathed second theme—a markedly Romantic contrast to the compact first theme. The orchestral exposition ends with a return to the Bachian counterpoint of the opening measures, but the piano’s furious entrance rips the music from its Baroque reverie back into the era of Beethoven. The soloists soon take over the lyrical second theme; the strings answer with a fragment of the Bachian theme, which, seemingly out of nowhere, plunges the music into showy salon fare.

One of this movement’s greatest delights lies in discovering how the young and, at

times, cheeky Mendelssohn inventively weds together all of these elements: Baroque

counterpoint with Romantic Sturm und Drang, profundity with showmanship, heroism

with salon music. Mendelssohn follows the fireworks of the concerto’s expansive first

movement with a heartfelt Adagio. After the initial tutti statement of the theme, most

of the movement is given over to an intimate dialog between the two soloists. The

full ensemble comes together again only for the movement’s magical conclusion. The

warm texture of the strings, playing sotto voce, surrounds the soloists with an ethereal glow. The final movement begins with an impassioned statement uttered first by the piano, which is then joined by the solo violin. The full ensemble responds with emphatic terseness. The fiery energy of this music is countered by the brighter, elegant second theme. Throughout the proceedings, whether tempestuous or calm, Mendelssohn spotlights the soloists with passages of pyrotechnic virtuosity.

—Patrick Castillo
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