Sunday, September 11, 2016

Project 366 - The Concerto

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


In this second of two installments dedicated to orchestral repertoire, we turn to the concerto. In modern-day parlance, a concerto is a piece of music that – in a manner not too dissimilar to the “duo sonata”, features a soloist being accompanied by an orchestra.

Solo Vs Grosso

The solo instrument featured in concerti can be any instrument, though they are typically the piano, violin (or another string instrument) or a wind instrument (flute, oboe, or even a trumpet or saxophone). There are no limitations in that regard. The soloist and ensemble are related to each other by alternation, competition, and combination.

This form of concerto, which we will call here the solo concerto, sometimes involves a few players as “soloists” – that is, say, two pianos, or piano and violin, or (in the case of Beethoven’s triple concerto) a piano trio. Although less frequent in the classical or romantic periods, the use of a group of players accompanied by the orchestra is actually aligned with a form popular in the baroque and early classical periods, the concerto grosso in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (the ripieno).

The first major composer to use the term concerto grosso was Arcangelo Corelli. After Corelli's death, a collection of twelve of his concerti grossi was published; not long after, composers such as Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli and Giuseppe Torelli wrote concertos in the style of Corelli. He also had a strong influence on Antonio Vivaldi, though Vivaldi is best known today for about 350 concerti for solo instrument and strings, of which 230 are for violin, the others being for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d'amore, recorder, lute, or mandolin.

Corelli's concertino group was invariably two violins and a cello, with a string section as ripieno group. Both were accompanied by a basso continuo with some combination of harpsichord, organ, lute or theorbo. Handel wrote several collections of concerti grossi, and several of the Brandenburg Concertos by J. S. Bach also loosely follow the concerto grosso form.

The concerto grosso form was superseded by the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante in the late eighteenth century, and new examples of the form did not appear for more than a century. In the twentieth century, the concerto grosso has been used by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Bela Bartok.

The concerto template

Like the sonata and symphony, the concerto is typically made up of several – typically three, but sometimes four - contrasting movements integrated tonally and often thematically. The individual movements are usually based on certain recognized designs, including sonata form, variations, and rondo form. In most cases, the three movements of a concerto fall into this scheme: FAST-SLOW-FAST. This setup, which has been around for centuries works especially well in a concerto, enabling the soloists to show off their amazing technique in the first and last movements and to bring the listener into a more intimate, soulful world in the middle.

Moreover, the solo concerto provides or at least invites an improvised cadenza near the end of a movement—an extended, free flourish that may go on for as long as several minutes.

The term “concertino” is sometimes used as the diminutive term for concerto - a short concerto freer in form. It normally takes the form of a one-movement musical composition for solo instrument and orchestra, though some concertinos are written in several movements played without a pause.

Who’s the Boss?

In an infamous “disclaimer” prior to a concerto performance, Leonard Bernstein offered an interesting observation:

[What of the age old question]: "In a concerto, who is the boss; the soloist or the conductor?" The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance.


The problem isn’t very different than the situation we have in a duo sonata. Inherent in the concerto’s interrelationship of soloist and orchestra is the dialogue, the partnership – and at times the confrontation – between the soloist and the orchestra.. This dialogue influences the very nature of the solo part by almost forcing the soloist into a virtuoso’s role so that he can compete on an equal footing with his adversary, the orchestra. The dialogue, furthermore, influences not only the construction of individual musical phrases but also the musical textures chosen. In addition, it affects the ways of developing musical material (e.g., themes, rhythms) according to the logic of musical form, and even the broader blocking off of sections within forms, as in the concerto’s repeated exposition, with its sections for full orchestra (tutti) and soloist.

In a typical subscription concert, the concerto is sometimes the most important piece on the program, if only because it brings on stage a special guest. More often than not, the invited soloist is a familiar "star virtuoso", or even sometimes a promising talent. Without fail, however, the concerto is the opportunity for the audience to experience the closest thing to a musical summit, as we have here - at least - two great musicians, the soloist and conductor.

Exploring the concerto repertoire - Some Listener Guides


Listener Guide #35 - "Concertos without Soloist". Here are a number of concerti for orchestra by Vivaldi, Corelli, Stravinsky and Bartok. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #190 - 20 March 2015)


Listener Guide #36 - "Concertinos" -  A montage of “concertinos”, short concertos in one continuous movement or several short sections that feature the clarinet, violin and piano among others. (ITYWLTMT Montage # 228 - 19 Aug 2016)



Listener Guide #37 - "Schumann & Grieg". Piano music from Schumann and Grieg, with Radu Lupu playing their A minor piano concertos. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 37 - January 6, 2012)


Listener Guide #38 - "Mendelssohn & Bruch". The two great German violin concerti, performed in this vintage recording by Josef Suk (Vinyl's Revenge #5 - 13 Jan 2015)


Listener Guide #39 - "Tchaikovsky Concertos". Some selections from my vinyl collection of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto and the violin concerto. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 134 - 6 December 2013)


Listener Guide #40 - "Beethoven & Korngold". A pairing of the Korngold and Beethoven’s violin concertos in D. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #155 - 9 May 2014)


Listener Guide #41 - "Suoni la tromba" - A podcast featuring the trumpet in concerti and other orchestral favourites. It includes a cover-to-cover performance of Wynton Marsalis' Grammy winning album of classical trumpet concertos. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 229 - 02 Sep, 2016).