Friday 19 January 2018

Classical: Handel and Bach - the big boys of the Baroque

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Georg Friedrich Handel

George Hamilton

The first major crossroads on the musical landscape was mapped around 1600. There'd been a basic simplicity to what had gone before. From Gregorian chant - church music sung in a single vocal line - had grown motets and madrigals. Motets, mostly but not exclusively sacred choral compositions based on texts ("mot" being the French for "word"), and madrigals, secular songs with a little less formality, involving several voices singing different parts together.

Into this space burst the Baroque, all pulsating counterpoint and driving rhythm. Well, maybe not all of it. There is light and shade, after all.

In two of Vivaldi's Four Seasons - essentially concertos for the violin and a body of work that has to be included when you're talking about the Baroque - the middle movement is marked "largo" which in musical terms (Italian in origin) means very slow indeed. "Adagio", by the way, the other tempo indicator saying you shouldn't hurry, doesn't actually mean slow, but "at ease".

There are a few forks after that first big crossroads. One leads to Italy. Monteverdi - with a catalogue of church music, madrigals, and early opera - is off in one direction. Corelli, pushing the boundaries of instrumental music, goes off in another.

Straight on down the road, we'll meet the first heavy-hitter in the world of music - Johann Sebastian Bach.

Cross the sea to Britain and you'll find a German émigré by the name of Georg Friedrich Handel who settled in London.

He became composer to the kings of England. And he gave Dublin a date to remember when he premièred his Messiah with a lunchtime performance in the New Music Hall on Fishamble Street, just down from Christ Church Cathedral, on a Tuesday, three weeks after Easter, in 1742.

A terrific example of Baroque at its finest is Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, a stand-alone piece these days, but originally part of his oratorio Solomon.

You'll find it on a host of classical compilations, and many of those feature the version by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the direction of Neville Marriner, which was my introduction to the tune many years ago.

Times, and tastes, change though, and for me now the definitive version is the one by John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists which you can download or seek out through their website

John Eliot Gardiner made it his life's work to present the music of the greats of the Baroque exactly as it would have sounded when it was originally performed.

During his time as a student at Cambridge, he set up the Monteverdi choir, and insisted on period instruments for the band that accompanied them. Those players became the English Baroque Soloists, and for good measure he also established the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique to bring to the music of the Romantic era the same authenticity his period instrument players bring to the Baroque.

Bach is a huge part of his repertoire. It took him a while to get around to recording one of the greatest collections of Baroque music but when he finally did, at the age of 66, with his English Baroque Soloists, the result was simply stunning. You can hear for yourself on their own not-for-profit label Soli Deo Gloria. The double CD (SDG 707) is entitled simply Bach Brandenburg Concertos.

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