Bach and Vivaldi Concertos at St Martin in the Fields

When we visit London we usually try to fit in some jazz in the evening.  This time, though, we did something different.  I’m not a great one for classical music, especially big symphonic pieces.  But I do enjoy 20th century classical – and chamber music from the Baroque period.  So we went along to St Martin’s in the Fields to hear a great selection of Baroque masterpieces.

St Martin’s is such a landmark, on the corner of Trafalgar Square opposite the National Gallery, and I’ve probably passed it a hundred times – but never gone inside.  I don’t know what I expected – but we arrived to find the church a busy, bustling place, packed with people.  Apart from those who there to hear the music, downstairs the Cafe in the Crypt was bursting at the seams, too.  There are concerts of classical music performed here on several nights during the week, and there are Jazz Nights most Wednesdays.

We had come to hear a programme of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi performed by the London Musical Arts Orchestra:

Bach – Violin Concerto in E
Vivaldi – ‘Summer’ from Four Seasons
Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor
Vivaldi – Concerto for Two Violins in A minor
Bach – Air ‘on the G String’
Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor

Bach’s  Violin Concerto in E major was composed in 1723.  Of the 20 or so of Bach’s surviving concertos, only two are for solo violin. Both the A minor and E major concertos have long been cherished mainstays of the violin repertoire.

The E-major Violin Concerto is a creation of purest Bachian splendour. Opening with three aggressive chords, built on an E-major triad, that form the beginning of the main subject, the first movement unfolds in a fashion characteristic of the composer, but with some surprises. Two serious episodes in minor provide sharp contrast with the ebullience of the main material. And before the return to the main subject, the violin has a tiny solo followed by an unexpected pause before those three opening chords announce the final full exposition of the movement’s main substance.

The minor-keyed slow movement opens the floodgates of a kind of exquisitely controlled poignancy that is Bach’s inimitable version of Baroque romanticism. The form is chaconne-like, which is to say there is a persistent figure in the orchestra above which the violin, after entering on a long-held note, spins seemingly improvisatory strands of serene expressiveness. Bach at his most exalted.

The exuberant final movement is calculated to be give-and-take between orchestra and soloist – the group refrain appears five times with the soloist’s episodes in between. In the final solo episode Bach gives the soloist a brief but telling bit of virtuosity.
Orrin Howard, Los Angeles Philharmonic programme note

The music may have become over-familiar from being used in TV adverts, played down the phone while you’re put on hold or broadcast over shopping mall PA systems, but Vivaldi’s Four Seasons heard live remains a spine-tingling piece, as fresh as the first time you heard it.  The Four Seasons was published in 1725, in a set of twelve concerto’s entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention). Each concerto is in the distinct form of fast-slow-fast movements.  Vivaldi wrote individual sonnets to accompany each movement and the St Martins programme notes reproduced the sonnet for ‘Summer’:

Allegro non molto In the baking sun, pines burn and all languish. The cuckoo, turtle-dove and nightingale sing. Sweet zephyrs and the north wind blow and the shepherd cries.
Adagio At rest, he is disturbed by thunder and swarms of gnats.
Presto The storm shakes the heavens and breaks the corn.

Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Concerto in A minor

Bach’s approach to the violin concerto borrowed heavily from Vivaldi. His use of ritornello structures, movements organized in a fast-slow-fast arrangement, and an orchestrational approach that included the soloist as a component of the ensemble sound (as opposed to the more heroic soloist-versus-orchestra construct that would emerge in the following generations) all point directly to the Italian influence. The outer movements of the Concerto in A Minor demonstrate Bach’s fluidity and cohesion within this adopted format. Yet the most striking music is reserved for the slow movement; spanning more time than the other two movements combined, this hallowed meditation in the relative major key of C occupies the emotional core of the concerto. The movement unfolds as a spacious conversation between the insistent bass motive of repeated notes and the free-spirited violin melody, mediated by a spare accompaniment of pulsing chords in the upper strings.
– Aaron Grad, programme notes, Kennedy Centre

During the interval there’s a feature called Meet the Music in which the Orchestra’s Musical Director John Landoran gives an informative and entertaining introduction to a piece to be played in the second half – Bach’s Air from Suite No 3 in D ‘on the G string’.  He explains how the music was composed by breaking it down to reveal the component elements layered into the piece, while the musicians demonstrate the elements separately, then together. To reinforce the point, the musicians perform the complete passage among the audience, in order to emphasise the separate elements.

During the interval we also had time to look around the building, which was renovated in 2008. The first reference to a church on the site of St Martin’s is in Norman times, in 1222. St Martin’s, then surrounded by fields, appears to have been used by monks from Westminster.  The church was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542 to avoid plague victims from the area having to pass through his Palace of Whitehall. At that time, it was still literally ‘in the fields’ between the cities of Westminster and London.

The present church was designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1726.  Gibbs’ design has been imitated across North America and throughout the world.  During the first half of the concert I’d noticed a curious design in the window behind the performers.  It’s the East Window, designed by artist Shirazeh Houshiary, and it depicts the rippled image of a cross as if it were seen reflected in water, and is a feature that was installed during the 2008 renovation.

Walking around the church I came across a sculpture  dedicated to victims of injustice and violence.  It was made by Chaim Stephenson and is dedicated to all victims of injustice and violence during the years of apartheid. It was edicated in 1994 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994

I also learned about how St Martin’s has always been responsive to injustice and social need. It was here that London’s first free lending library was established, Amnesty International was conceived, and Shelter and the Big Issue were launched.  Work with the homeless began during the First World War and continues today with The Connection at St Martin’s, a project which helps homeless people by providing specialist services – including a day and night centre, outreach for rough sleepers, skills training and career advice, and specialist support for complex needs.  The project caters to over 200 people in central London every day.

The second half of the concert began with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor.  In programme notes for the Los Angeles Orchestra, Steven Ledbetter emphasises the impact which Vivaldi’s compositions had on Bach:

Johann Sebastian Bach was gripped by the frenzy of discovery when he encountered Vivaldi’s concertos during his years in Weimar (1708 17). He studied them closely and learned Vivaldi’s technique by transcribing a number of his violin concertos into keyboard concertos.  The concertos of Vivaldi’s Opus 3 taught many composers how to use the orchestral ritornello form as a efficient organizing principle. In the ritornello form, the basic material of the movement is set forth by the full orchestra in a passage that returns in various keys before being restated in the tonic at the end of the movement. These frequent restatements justify the term ritornello, which literally means ‘that which returns’.  The function of these restatements is like that of the piers of a suspension bridge, supporting the airy span of the soloist’s (or soloists’) line. So effective is the ritornello that it was adopted as the formal principle for everything from concertos to opera arias in the ensuing decades.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, No. 8 was published as one of a dozen concertos collected in his Opus 3. … Vivaldi may not have invented the ritornello form of the Baroque concerto, but these 12 compositions—only a tiny percentage of his more than 500 concertos—did more than any others to establish the form all over Europe. From the tip of the Italian boot up to England and Scandinavia, composers attempted to imitate the directness of Vivaldi’s pregnant themes and the energy of his rhythms, not to mention his highly refined ear for orchestral colour.

Vivaldi’s concerto was followed by Bach’s Air from Suite No 3 in D ‘on the G string’. John Landoran had explained during the interval that the title comes from violinist August Wilhelmj’s late 19th century arrangement of the piece for violin and piano. Wilhelmj placed the melody more than an octave lower than the pitch at which Bach wrote it, so that it could be played on the violin’s lowest string (the one tuned to G) with rich effect. Landoran had also reminded us of the Air’s use in the 1960s TV adverts for Hamlet cigars – and had demonstrated how it had been adapted for that purpose.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major has long been one of the favourites in his series of suites, largely on the strength of the  second movement played here – a sustained melody of ravishing tranquility that Bach simply called ‘Air’.

The final piece was Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor.  The two surviving violin concertos and this concerto for two violins were all written between 1717 and 1723 at Cothen, during a period when Bach was in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, who placed at his disposal an establishment of eighteen talented musicians. The six Brandenburg concertos also date from this period.  Programme notes for this piece begin by once again noting the Vivaldi connection:

During his earlier years at Weimar, Bach had come to admire the Italian style of concerto as composed by Vivaldi. Indeed, he had paid the Venetian master the tribute of transcribing a number of his many published violin concertos for solo keyboard and had also arranged a Vivaldi concerto for four violins as a concerto for four harpsichords. Although these transcripts show Bach rethinking idiomatic violin music in terms of the keyboard, when it came to his own violin concertos the influence of the harpsichord, with its self-sufficient contrapuntal possibilities and quick unsustained brightness was entirely forgotten.

Bach’s violin concertos are not virtuoso showpieces, as Vivaldi’s tend to be, but are conceived completely in purely violinistic terms. With the need to display the skill of two soloists, Bach substantially reduces the orchestral contribution in this work. Once the extended opening tutti has established the mood, the weight of the first movement falls upon the soloists in two long episodes, the tutti returning briefly both in the middle and at the end. The soloists also have the responsibility of opening the finale and again dominate that movement.

Between these two outer movements lies one of Bach’s greatest and most sublime creations, an eloquent duet of overlapping and imitative phrases punctuated on four occasions by a gentle downward four-note fragment that each time seems to lead to an intensification of the poignancy and depth of feeling of this wonderful dialogue.

The performers of the London Musical Arts Ensemble were:

Solo Violins: Joshua Fisher, Dominika Rosiek
Violins: Helen Davies, George Hlawiczka
Viola: Matthew Quenby
Cello: Katharine Jenkinson
Bass: Benjamin Griffiths
Harpsichord: Nathaniel Mander

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