The three composers on this recording, Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Silvius Leopold Weiss, were each tremendously influential in their own part of the Baroque universe. Virtually exact contemporaries, these three greats have become some of the most celebrated and significant composers to date.
Although Johann Sebastian Bach spent most of his life composing liturgical works for the church, he spent six years, from 1717 to 1723, devoting his energy to writing secular instrumental music. His employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen, was a serious and highly trained amateur musician with little interest in sacred music. Bach enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the Prince, even naming him as godfather to one of his children born during his tenure. Bach only left Cöthen when the Prince took a wife whom Bach described as without musical interests. Both of the works on this recording were written during this time.
Suite no. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, is one of his most frequently transcribed cello suites, especially the beautifully arpeggiated Prelude. This is followed by the elegant Allemande and Courante, a dignified Sarabande, a pair of sprightly Minuets, and concludes with an athletic Gigue.
Bach’s epic Chaconne is certainly one of the pinnacles of his solo instrumental compositions. It is speculated that he wrote this final movement of his D minor Partita for solo violin, in a state of grief upon returning from a trip to discover that his beloved wife had suddenly passed away. The chaconne is an extraordinarily disciplined form: a set of variations on a harmonic progression in triple meter. Despite these constraints, Bach managed to write some of his most intense music. As Johannes Brahms declared, “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived, the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
Domenico Scarlatti, son of the great opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, was born the same year as J. S. Bach. He spent the first 33 years of his life under his father’s thumb, writing Neapolitan opera and church music. He did not come into his own until he left home in 1719 when he accepted a position at the royal court in Portugal, where he was responsible for the musical education of Princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. Through marriage she later became Queen of Spain, and the composer followed his patroness to continue their lessons. She was, by all accounts, a brilliant performer, and Scarlatti wrote over 550 keyboard sonatas, all in binary form, for her.
Scarlatti’s originality and virtuosity on the harpsichord was unmatched at the time, and his sonatas exhibit an experimental nature unusual for the eighteenth century. From the abrupt mood changes of K531 to the suspenseful K474; the mournful K32 to the flashy hand crossings of K11 and K27, Scarlatti’s bold harmonic language was colored by the flamenco music that surrounded him as well as the bel canto style of his native Italy, both of which elevated the instrument’s possibilities to new levels.
Sylvius Leopold Weiss, born in 1686 in Breslau, what was then Bohemia, indisputably dominates the history of lute music. After his Dusseldorf debut in 1706 at the court of Elector Johann Wilhelm, he met with phenomenal success as a touring performer in every important center of music and culture in the Baroque period, socializing with royalty and many significant musicians, including Scarlatti and Handel. However, in 1718, Weiss became weary of constantly touring and accepted a lucrative position at the court of Dresden for the King of Poland, where he stayed for the rest of his life. There is one documented instance of a meeting between Weiss and Bach in 1739 in Leipzig, although it is quite possible that the two met on other occasions, as Bach’s patron was a frequent host to Weiss and Bach’s son became the organist at the Dresden court. Weiss was impressively prolific, leaving us with over 650 solo lute works. The suite on this recording is rhythmically intriguing and quite extroverted; like many of his suites, it lacks a prelude, which he may have expected the performer to improvise.