in: Reviews

February 20, 2011

Impeccable Italian Il Giardino Armonico

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I could not think of a better way to spend a cold, blustery evening that hearing the glorious sounds of Baroque music, especially performed by the acclaimed early music group, Il Giardino Armonico; and the concert was performed under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival, at Sanders Theatre on February 19. The concert, entitled “A Venezia!,” featured instrumental music from Venice during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first half featured Sonata decimaquinta a 4 and Sonata Decimasesta a 4 by Dario Castello; Canzone a 4 “La Lusignola” and Ciaccona for Two Violins and Continuo by Tarquinio Merula; Sonata seconda a 4, Op.10 by Giovanni Legrenzi; and Concerto in C Major, RV 444 for flautino, strings, and continuo by Antonio Vivaldi. The second half of the program featured Concerto in c minor, RV 441 for flauto, strings, and continuo and Concerto in C major, RV 443 for flautino, strings, and continuo by Vivaldi. and Concerto a 4 in gminor by Baldassare Galupi. The ensemble performed two encores after their standing ovation, the first of which was a piece by Georg Philipp Telemann featuring the entire ensemble, the second a repeat performance of the Ciaccona for Two Violins and Continuo.

Il Giardino Armonico, founded in Milan twenty-five years ago, is devoted to primarily playing 17th- and 18th-century music on period instruments and has a distinguished recording history. This Italian ensemble has eight members: Giovanni Antonini, director and recorders; Enrico Onofri, violin; Marco Bianchi, violin; Stefano Barneschi, viola; Paolo Beschi, violoncello, Giancarlo De Frenza, double bass; Luca Pianca, lute; and Riccardo Doni, harpsichord.

The musicians’ technique and playing was impeccable, and I am always impressed when musicians take the historical performance practice of the period seriously, which each of them did. I was especially impressed by the technique of Antonini on both sopranino and soprano recorders during the concerti. The enthusiasm on the part of the performers directly influenced the performance. They were both having fun and moved by the music.

The first part of the program up to the flute concerto seemed like a single piece with many movements; the performance and gestures after each piece didn’t allow for applause. Though a specialist on Venetian music of the seventeenth century, I couldn’t even discern where pieces and movements start and began, so I can imagine the confusion on the part of the audience! Nonetheless, the ensemble seemed to be having as much fun as the audience, especially Pianca, who played around with different accenting of the notes the ground bass in the ciaccona and the other players effectively followed his changes as if they were reading his mind. Granted, these changes may have been planned ahead of time, and if so, they certainly were done so well as to pass for improvisation, a hallmark of music of this period. As an admitted musical purist, I was slightly unnerved by the doubling and tripling in the piece of parts for instruments not intended to be played — for instance, if a piece is composed for two violins and continuo, the only instruments that should be playing are the two violins, the continuo instrument, and the doubler.

I am always pleasantly surprised at what a crowd the concerts of the Boston Early Music Festival draws — in this case, the concert was performed to a packed house.  Of course, Il Giardino Armonico is one of the big names in early music performance, and the evening of music by Baroque masters was satisfying in every way.

Reba Wissner is in the Doctoral Program in Musicology at Brandeis University.

2 Comments

  1. It was a fine concert indeed–high time that GA came to Boston! Just one small correction: Antonini played sopranino and alto recorders, but not the soprano.

    I thought that the improvisations connecting the pieces in the first half were very well done; I guess to my ear they sounded different enough from the canzone and sonate that the demarcation of pieces was fairly clear. As you mentioned, improvisation was a hallmark of the Baroque era, so I was glad that they included some purely improvisatory (or at least semi-improvisatory) moments. I also wasn’t bothered by the doubling and improvised accompaniments in the ciaccona–much of the available evidence in primary sources indicates that professional musicians of the 17th century were well accustomed to “jamming” on ground basses, as well as a certain flexibility of forces–particularly when it came to realizing the bass lines of the (relatively new) stil moderno.

    What _did_ bother me was Antonini’s recorder playing–and I say this as someone who generally loves Giardino Armonico, and owns several of their albums. Sure, he can wiggle his fingers with amazing speed, but the tempi in the Vivaldi pieces were often too fast for him to effectively produce all the notes, and forced him into monochromatic articulations in the sections of rapid passagework. He also cracked a few high notes, was frequently very sharp, rushed certain passages (the ensemble had to “catch” him several times) and rather dramatically ornamented himself right out of the harmony at the end of the Largo in RV 443. I’d have happily ignored any number of technical problems if he was really trying to communicate something musical with his playing, but unfortunately the moments of musicality and connection with the audience were few and far between. Of course virtuosity is part of the Baroque aesthetic, but I had the impression that Antonini was sacrificing any attempt at musical rhetoric for the sake of playing the Vivaldi pieces as fast as humanly possible and producing the most complex ornaments he could imagine, whether or not they matched the harmony or the affect of the surrounding accompaniment. I once heard a colleague describe a performance as “faster than music”, and I think that’s a good general description of Antonini’s playing on Saturday night. It’s a shame, because historically-informed performance of Baroque music is finally beginning to be accepted in the mainstream classical music world, and it would be sad if newcomers to early music thought that playing ludicrously fast was the only rhetorical tool in the period instrument toolbox. I still love Giardino Armonico’s energy and panache, and most of the playing on Saturday night was gorgeous, but I hope that Giovanni Antonini doesn’t push the ensemble too far in the direction of virtuosity over musicality.

    Comment by Dan Meyers — February 22, 2011 at 1:02 am

  2. What an impressive response. As someone old enough to have seen the unfolding of informed Baroque playing over the decades, it is a joy. Which is not to say that Baroque music should be simply “full of joy”; nor that speed ipso facto should be a goal. Exhilaration is to me a key part of Baroque playing, but so is wryness, deftness,… Trumping also seems to me part of the ethic, but the skill implied can be had in many ways.

    Comment by Settaantenne amante di musica — February 22, 2011 at 9:59 am

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