Bach to Basics: II. The Concerto

Our Bach to Basics series continues with the most dazzling of instrumental genres, the concerto! The concerto as we think of it today began appearing on programmes during the Baroque era, hit its stride during the Classical period, and hasn’t left the stage since. Let’s take a quick look…


WHAT IS A CONCERTO?

First things first: what is a concerto? A concerto is a work for orchestra plus a soloist, or a small group of soloists. A central element is the contrast between the soloist(s) and the orchestra. The interplay between the musicians on stage, ranging from conflict to cohesion, is a crucial part of the genre.


BACK TO THE BAROQUE

During the Baroque era, we find two predecessors of the concerto as we know it today: the concerto grosso (a work for a small group of soloists and a larger ensemble of accompanists) and the solo concerto (a work for soloist and orchestra). In both cases, the alternation between soloist(s) and ensemble served as a guiding light.

For an example of what the concerto sounded like in the Baroque era, let’s head straight to the master himself: Antonio Vivaldi. Vivaldi wrote over 500 concertos, most for soloist and orchestra, but a handful for a group of soloists and orchestra, like this one:

▶️ Click here to watch the full work.


CEMENTING CLASSICAL CONVENTIONS

During the classical era, the concerto came into its own as a genre. At the hands of multi-talented composer-performers like Mozart, it combined technical and compositional prowess into a single work. Concertos during this period were generally in three parts with two fast-paced movements bookending a slow, more lyrical middle section.

Mozart wrote over 40 concertos, which is more than one per year of his short life! His Clarinet Concerto is among the most well-known. Let’s listen to Martin Fröst’s expert interpretation of the lively third movement:


CADENZA 101

One of the highlights of many concertos is the cadenza, an unaccompanied passage that puts the soloist’s virtuosity on full display. A feature introduced during the Classical era, cadenzas at the time were often meant to be improvised by the performer (who was frequently the composer as well!).

Fun fact: Beethoven’s “Emperor” is his only piano concerto to feature a cadenza-like passage written into the score (plus a note warning performers not to add their own!).

▶️ Click here to watch master pianist Daniel Barenboim conduct and play!


SOLOISTS AT CENTER STAGE

Portrait of the young Liszt, Henri Lehmann, 1839.

During the height of the Romantic period, soloists took on the aura of rock stars and the concerto was the perfect vehicle to display their virtuosity. Legendary performers like Paganini and Liszt often added elaborate embellishments and extra cadenzas to the concertos they performed to huge crowds.

Liszt also composed two of his own concertos, which are unsurprisingly full of dazzling passages…

Concertos can sound vastly different depending on the soloist. Why not sharpen your listening skills by exploring the nuances of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by some of the greatest pianists of our time?
▶️ Click here to check out our playlist!

Concertos are often written with a particular soloist in mind. Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was composed for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War I! Let’s listen to an excerpt performed by Jean-Philippe Collard:

You see, there are so many concertos that are useful and interesting more for their virtuoso display, their flashy technical goods, than for their real musical worth. But a great composer writes concertos that can show off the soloist beautifully and can also be great music at the same time.  – Leonard Bernstein (performer of countless concertos)


THE ROMANTIC CONCERTO

The best way to get to know the Romantic concerto? Your ears and eyes. Check out our playlists of concertos by three of the genre’s undisputed masters.

Brahms’ Violin Concertos
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concertos

CONTEMPORARY CONCERTOS

Concertos have remained central throughout the twentieth century, with many of the era’s major composers writing in the genre. Let’s look at a few examples to get an idea of the diversity…

We’ve already heard Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left-Hand, now let’s listen to his jazz-infused Piano Concerto in G major, performed by Hélène Grimaud:

Written in roughly the same period, Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet sounds completely different. Listen to the almost frenzied, fragmented dialogue between the two soloists and the orchestra in the work’s closing moments in this performance by Martha Argerich and David Guerrier:

Morecambe and Wise, sketch on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor

Like the symphony, the concerto has also entered the pop culture canon, popping up in comedy sketches like Morecambe and Wise’s side-splitting take on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and feature films like Shine, which depicts the physical and mental anguish of preparing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

This excerpt from the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (performed expertly here by Katia Buniatishvili) should give you an idea of how demanding the piece is for the performer:


Stay tuned for episode 3, which takes a look at a more intimate kind of instrumental composition… Just joining us? Catch up on episode 1’s exploration of The Symphony now!

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