Last night at Herbst Theatre, Richard Egarr returned to conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) in a program cleverly entitled Corelli The Godfather. The idea behind this title (besides making a pitch to lure new members into the PBO audience) was the exploration of the concerto grosso, whose first major proponent (if not first of all) was Arcangelo Corelli. Ironically, the full impact of Corelli’s approach to making music with a small number of soloists embedded in a larger ensemble may not have been felt in his lifetime. The concerto grosso “concept” probably owes much to the posthumous publication of twelve of his concerti grossi as his Opus 6.
Those who follow the Baroque repertoire and/or its proponents, such as PBO, know that publishers had a disposition for issuing collections of compositions, usually as groups of six or twelve. Usually, the grouping entailed some form of structural commonality. In the case of this Opus 6 publication, that commonality can be found only in the deployment of two violins and one cello taking solo parts within a string ensemble. From a structural point of view, there is no single way of organizing a composition in movements that pervades the entire collection.
Egarr established this point through the two concerti he selected for the collection, one for each side of the intermission. He began the program with the tenth concerto grosso in the key of C major. The informed eye examining the list of movements would quickly recognize this piece as a dance suite, one with an introductory prelude and an Adagio intervening between the allemande and the courante. On the other hand the selection for the second half of the program, the second concerto grosso in F major, consists of an extended sequence of very short movements, which demarcate a rapid-fire succession of mood shifts. (This is also the structure of the most familiar of the works in this collection, the eighth in G minor, which is best known as the “Christmas Concerto.”) There are also a few works with movements identified only by tempo but of longer duration.
Taken as a whole, this collection thus tells us much about Corelli’s approach to making music; and one might say that the remainder of the program was devoted to two of those who listened to him. This lesser known of these two was Georg Muffat, who was born in 1653, the same year as Corelli (one of several indicators that the “godfather” epithet does not work that well). Muffat published a collection of five concerti grossi in 1682 under the title Armonico tributo, and Egarr conducted the last of these in the key of G major.
Taken as a whole, this piece had its own interesting approach to a five-movement structure. The two outer movements were both dance forms, concluding with an extended passacaglia. The second and fourth movement were both Adagio tempo, and the middle movement was a fugue. This selection allowed one to appreciate not only the interplay of solo and ensemble work but also Muffat’s imaginative capacity for invention based on a few basic materials, most evident in that concluding passacaglia.
The better known of Corelli’s attentive listeners was George Frideric Handel. Egarr introduced Handel’s Opus 6 collection of twelve concerto grossi by observing that its publication was intended as a tribute to Corelli’s Opus 6, which had appeared 25 years earlier. Egarr’s selections from this collection, the fourth in A minor and the first in G major, followed the more conventional patterns of movements in alternating tempos; but that did not make listening to Egarr’s vigorous approach to conducting any the less stimulating. Egarr also took to the organ for a performance of Handel’s HWV 304 concerto in D minor, a work whose two outer movements were separated by an opportunity for the soloist to indulge in free improvisation.
This brings us to Egarr-the -performer sharing the stage with Egarr-the-conductor. Situated behind any keyboard, Egarr definitely knows how to indulge! His organ improvisation had an unmistakable ring of spontaneity, emerging as an engaging pastiche of honoring the past and reveling in the present. In addition he conducted the remainder of the program from behind a harpsichord, where his capacity for improvisation was just as free and stimulating. (When was the last time you heard anyone run a glissando across harpsichord keys?) Egarr was very much the consummate performer, and he harnessed his skills to both the benefit of all of the PBO players (soloists and ensemble) and his own work on two different classes of keyboard instruments.