Friday, June 19, 2015

Sonatas with orchestra and soloist

No. 203  of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

A few months ago, we discussed concertos in many different forms, and featured some sinfonie concertanti, works that feature a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment yet are not called “concertos”, either for historical reasons or because the solo instrument doesn’t get “equal billing”.

I’d suggest that listeners consider the short set of selections I retained today in the same vein – these are called “sonatas”, but they could also be “concertos”, if only because of the way they have been constructed; with a solo instrument and an accompanying orchestra.

Case in point: Nicolo Paganini’s “grande sonate” for viola and orchestra. There is no doubt that the viola is the feature performer. Yes, there are episodes where the orchestra is front and center but, as we heard last week in the Beethoven sonatas, it’s not uncommon for the accompanist to hog the spotlight…

Works by Corelli and Purcell, from the baroque period, are probably a more apt example of what we would take as a sonata, as many compositions of that era didn’t feature a solo instrument and a keyboard accompaniment – sometimes, accompaniment was intended for a small complement of instruments – thus the sonata a cinque or the sonata a quattro

Johannes Brahms wrote chamber works for the clarinet rather late in his career – his quintet for clarinet and stings, a trio for piano, violin and clarinet and a pair of sonatas for clarinet and piano, both published under his op. 120.  Luciano Berio, an avant-garde composer in his own right, often orchestrated works by other composers, and he provided his own orchestration of the piano accompaniment to the first of these sonatas, a work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered with clarinetist Michele Zukovsky in Los Angeles, on 6 November 1986.

To complete the montage, I retained a sampling of some of the seventeen Church Sonatas (sonata di chiesa), also known as Epistle Sonatas, written by Mozart between 1772 and 1780. These are short single-movement pieces intended to be played during a celebration of the Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel – a place where contemporary Mass inserts the “Hallelujah”. The vast majority of these are scored for organ and strings (with no violas). In eight of the sonatas, the organ has an obbligato solo part and in the other nine the organ accompanies along with the figured bass.

Shortly after Mozart left Salzburg, the Archbishop mandated that an appropriate choral motet or congregational hymn be sung at that point in the liturgy, and the "Epistle Sonata" fell into disuse. Thankfully, there are many recordings of these sonatas, including this fine one by I Musici de Montreal and baroque organist Genevieve Soly.

I think you will love this music too.