Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bach :Il Giardino Armonico - Brandenburg Concertos 1-6

I'm a professional singer who specializes in Baroque and early repertoire. This has made me a firm believer in the historical performance movement. It has done so much to give new shape and dynamism to works that were heretofore rendered mostly in broad, lugubrious strokes. The movement continues to evolve, and as it does the amount of color and depth infusing this repertoire continues to grow and take on new dimension. No longer are many of us content to hear Monteverdi and Lully sung with the extremely bright, straight tones of Emma Kirkby and Nancy Argenta, but rather wish to hear the more appropriate lush and shimmery vocal colors of singers like Sandrine Piau, Guillemette Laurens, Christine Brandeis and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

With that in mind, I've heard more recordings of the Brandenburgs than I care to name. And I'm just as tired of the anemic sound and too-fast tempi of ensembles like Hogwood's as I am of the too slow, syrupy interpretations of Furtwangler and Karajan. This recording by Il Giardino Armonico is the only recording I've heard that manages to make these extraordinary works really speak.

Antonini bridges the gap between rich lyricism and crisp articulation better than anyone I can think of who performs this repertoire. My favorite of all the Brandenburgs is #4, and the five-voice fugue in the last movement is the standard by which I judge all the best interpretations of this work. Antonini does the most remarkable things with this piece. The subject is rendered by each voice in the most song-like, tuneful, vocal manner. Instead of thumpy, fast, dry (for most period recordings) or wobbly, incoherent, unintelligible (for most modern instrument recordings) here is great legato playing without any loss of crispness or transparency of texture. Where the line may jump a fifth, he connects the lines where most conductors demand extreme separation, and then creates the most astonishing, perfectly shaped messe di voce you can imagine. That said, all the entrances of the fugue subject are completely distinguishable, and no entrance has the same quality as any other. All the instruments are allowed to let their unique color and texture come forth, and Bach surely understood how important this was when he orchestrated the work. Furthermore, all of the silences in the work are sharply drawn by the ensemble and as dramatic as you might hear in any Beethoven symphony. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and I was enormously grateful that, finally, someone got it right.

The other great measure of a high-quality period recording of this work is the natural horn playing on the Brandenburg #2. While it's a hair rough and decidedly masculine (the latter not being a bad thing), it's extremely powerful and expressive, and the player (Gabriele Cassone) understands how to make his instrument speak and dazzle, rather than just hammering out a technically perfect performance, which is all that most natural horn players can hope for.

It's rare that I don't have a complaint about a recording, but this is that exception. I recommend this piece heartily and unqualifiedly.A. (amazon review)

No comments: