"This was definitely no mass-market music for amateurs"
Artistic director Johannes Pramsohler discusses the programme of the new Ensemble Diderot album and explores the importance of an educational element in programming baroque music for today's audience
Putting together a programme of baroque works - whether they are concertos or chamber music - is always a tricky undertaking when one doesn't want to focus on just one composer or a very specific theme. What overall mood should the concert have? How can I establish a memorable sense of range and variety in tone, tempo, dynamics and meaning between works? I think we all agree that seducing the audience is our main goal as performing musicians. When constructing a programme it is therefore very important to me to have an intellectual superstructure, a captivating dramaturgic curve as well as a discrete didactical element in order to catch the listener’s attention from several angles. Every piece in the construction should contribute to this framework in one way or the other. Staying within a geographical area would be such an approach, telling a chronological story, illuminating a specific moment in history, or illustrating musical or personal connections between composers. My wish is for the audience to leave the concert hall not only refreshed and inspired but also a little bit wiser than they were when they first took their seats.
As instrumental works from the Baroque usually can't compare with the scale of works from later periods, one can't rely on the single work itself to provide the red thread for an entire half of a concert. Given the relative shortness of baroque works one has to work almost thinking like a rock group that puts together the setlist for a concert. The danger though is for the programme to drift off into a meaningless collection of random "audience favourites" - or worse, uninteresting pieces - that completely neglect the audience's intellect.
Even the term “work” is still problematic in the baroque, in as much as a clear consciousness, and with that an exactly defined work concept as we understand it today, emerged only much later. In this respect, Ensemble Diderot, in its for all intents and purposes post-romantic attempt to establish a canon of baroque chamber music, is far away from “historical performance practice.”
And yet, one finds them time and again: fabulous individual pieces that are out of the ordinary, and that through their musical content can stand alone as “works.” In the endeavor to examine early music for its suitability for the modern concert hall, the pieces presented on our album "Sonatas for three violins" stand out from the crowd. When we started examining pieces for three violins we were astonished by the sheer variety of forms and the great technical demands they put on an ensemble.
The music recorded for this disc encompasses a period of around a hundred years. The earliest works come from the time around 1600, which is considered one of the most profound watersheds in musical history. The new expressiveness unleashed above all by Monteverdi’s music was at the same time also potent in the increasingly independent instrumental music. This development is directly connected with the emancipation of the violin and its marvelous cantabile and virtuoso possibilities. When the composers started to make the individual sections of the ricercar into independent contrasting movements, and accordingly separated them from each other also in terms of tempo, the transition to a cyclical manner of formation, that is to say, to a stringing together of independent movements, was initiated and a meaningful musical organization adopted as a maxim.
However, not all of the works in the present programme fall into the category of “sonata.” Here, the term shall not describe a form, but rather will merely be a generic term for instrumental music. Basically, it is a special form of the ensemble sonata – a hybrid of solo piece and ensemble work, which through its four-part structure (three upper voices and bass) can show itself fuller-voiced than the customary trio sonata. Whereas the compositional procedure in the treatment of merely two violins is the exchange of voices, with three violins the composer must work above all with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and thus gains entirely new possibilities for dramatugical effects. Fugues and more complex canons are also available in a much higher density than in the trio sonata.
The forms in the present programme range from typical Italian patchwork sonatas in freer configurations that have their origins in instrumental canzonas (Gabrieli, Fontana, Buonamente) over dance suites with introductory sonatas (Hacquart), monumental individual movements such as pavans (Purcell, Baltzar) and those with ostinato bass (Pachelbel, Purcell), variations over chorale melodies (Sommer), up to works that approach the character of the high-baroque church sonata (Schmelzer, Torelli, Dornel).
The general baroque fascination for richness of tone finds expression in the scorings with violins, which also explains, among other things, the meteoric development of the violin in the sevententh century. Through the fact that three instruments are concentrated in the soprano range, the mesmerizing tonal result is intensified many times over. Although one can observe a continual occupation with works for three violins, above all before 1700, the form never really established itself like the trio sonata – probably also because the three violins offered a kind of virtuoso competition that tempted the composers to write outstanding individual pieces for professionals, and not mass-market works for amateurs.
So, sit down, take your best set of earphones, close your eyes and go on this electrifying journey with us.
Stream/Listen/Download/Buy album here.
Stream/Listen/Download/Buy album here.