Karl Jenkins is a Welsh composer and musician, born in 1944. He started his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to work mainly in jazz and jazz-rock bands, on baritone and soprano saxophone, keyboard, and oboe; an unusual instrument in jazz music.
Jenkins’ compositions are amongst some of the most popular around. His choral work The Armed Man was listed no.1 in Classic FM's Top 10 by Living Composers, 2008 and his work has featured in adverts for international companies including Levi Jeans, Renault and De Beers.
The Palladio Suite, one of Jenkins’ most famous works, is written in the Concerto Grosso style more commonly associated with Baroque music. It is made up of three movements; Allegretto, Largo and Vivace; and harks back to the writing of Venetian composers such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. It is conventional and unchallenging, its techniques and harmonies remaining firmly based in the 18th Century, a feature which is unusual for Jenkins who often combines a mixture of modern and traditional musical styles in his work.
Palladio was inspired by the architect Andrea Palladio, who designed many beautiful villas and churches in the Venice region in the 16th Century, and who gives his name to the London Palladium. The piece mirrors the idea of artistic beauty within a defined architectural framework.
This is not the only time Jenkins has found a connection between his music and visual aesthetics. On the front page of his website he tells the following story:
“Very late one night in 1997, across a dark and deserted St. Mark’s Square, Venice, I saw a painting, lit like a beacon, drawing me inexorably to the window of Galleria Ravagnan. It made a deep impression on me and as my wife and fellow musician, Carol, remarked, it looked like my music sounded. I simply had to have it so I returned the next day, bought the painting and began a long friendship with gallery owner Luciano Ravagnan. On a return visit, a year or so later, I met and befriended the artist only for us both to discover that he, not knowing who had bought his painting, had been painting to my music!”
The first movement of the Palladio Suite, Allegretto, is the most frequently performed. It became well known initially as the music for the 1994 De Beers Diamond advert. It has been recorded by the electric string quartets, Bond and Escala, and has established a permanent position in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.
The movement is constructed from rigid, repetitive string lines, which exist as building blocks over a staccato bass line, driving an ever-developing sense of drama and intensity.
It is important when playing this movement to subdivide the bars so as not to rush. You can hear how the parts interject and answer each other, but do so within a tight rhythmic framework. The rests are just as important as the notes and a combination of good counting, strong pulse and listening will help the ensemble. Try listening along with the score to see how the parts weave together and bounce off each other.
The bow-stroke in this movement should be clean, with plenty of contact, in the middle to lower-middle part of the bow. Each gesture of the main rhythmic figure works well from an up-bow. The tightly interwoven harmonies require clear intonation and a ringing tone to recreate the openness of the Venetian Baroque sound world.
The Suite has two further movements, both of which are immediately reminiscent of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, Winter from The Four Seasons.
The Largo features a pulsating accompaniment and a soaring, wistful violin solo, in which parallels with Vivaldi’s Largo are strongly apparent.
The Vivace is much lighter and more delicate than the Allegretto, with an immediately Baroque sound. Imagine how a lighter baroque bow would feel. You can do this by holding your own bow higher up the stick away from the frog. This will give you an idea of the lightness and vivacity of bow stroke necessary to bring the Vivace to life.
Again, it is easy to recall the nervous energy of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Winter. The insistent quality in the staccato, accompanying figure, the use of ostinato, which Jenkins frequently favours, and the minor tonality are common to both the Vivaldi and the third movement of Palladio.
The popular first movement has been recorded countless times by a diverse spectrum of musicians, given thousands of minutes of airtime on Classic FM and even remixed as a Dubstep song, but which recording is the best?
Classic FM recommends The Smith Quartet: London Philharmonic Strings Conducted by Karl Jenkins – Sony SK62276, or if you fancy something more up-tempo, try the recording by electric string quartet Escala.
Interestingly, both versions only feature the first movement. The complete suite is available on Jenkins’ 1996 album, the aptly named Diamond Music, featuring the Smith Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recordings on YouTube are also mainly restricted to the famous first movement, neglecting the others, despite their rather delicate beauty. This echoes another phenomenon of popular Baroque music whereby one movement becomes favoured, perhaps due to exposure in television, film or advertising. The first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring has become more popular than its other movements, and everybody thinks Pachelbel only wrote one tune.