Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was the undisputed master of the Baroque concerto. This mastery is much in evidence on a new Reference Recordings (RR) compact disc featuring England's Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The diversity suggested in the title is represented by varying instrumental collections of oboes, bassoons, horns, organs, flutes and strings.
This is a particularly good traversal of some of the lesser-known of Vivaldi's concerted works. Nicholas McGegan has chosen the repertoire well and directs his San Francisco based group with a firm, but expressive hand. Evidently, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra have been creeping quietly into the upper echelon of period instrument orchestras. With this record, they have jumped the queue!
On this occasion, the orchestra showcases their own players, with soloists taken from the rank and file. The solo players are technically accurate and display beautiful musical lines. All members of the orchestra add to the corporate feeling of involvement - the essential quality that keeps the ear and soul attuned to the composer's intentions. The sour tone one experiences from some recordings of period instruments is not in evidence. French horns are full in tone, with the players demonstrating wonderful technique. The stratospheric tessitura Vivaldi demands of the horns is met with ease - no praying for the high notes here! Oboes and bassoons add a distinct flavor to the proceedings, with delicate flutes adding their gentle touch to the superb wind section. Strings are uniformly excellent. And whereas the period instrument detractors are correct in their early assumptions regarding tuning, groups such as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra lay such notions to rest. As such, intonation is flawless.
When searching for a comparison recording, I found a recent CD of some of Vivaldi's concertos performed by Toronto-based Tafelmusik (Sony SK 62719). The recording serves to highlight Tafelmusik's fabulous string ensemble and wonderful woodwinds. Here, they are directed by Jeanne Lamon and feature Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma. The Concerto in D minor, RV 535 for oboes and strings is unique to both recordings and, as such, highlights some interesting points. While I much prefer the recorded sound portrayed by RR, the Tafelmusik performance is in a class of its own. Lamon elicits superb rhythms, exact ensemble, and, where required, the utmost gentleness. It is this gentleness that appeals to me greatly. Compared to Jeanne Lamon, Nicholas McGegan does seem to live in a faster lane! Both, however, serve to illustrate the qualities of Vivaldi's unique style and, as there is only one duplication, the Vivaldi enthusiast is encouraged to consider both.
The recording? In a word, stunning! Yes, the great Keith Johnson serves up another winner! Indeed, audiophiles and lovers of Baroque music can start reaching for their credit cards. From the opening Concerto in F, RV 569, the sound is immediate, jumping energetically from the stage of the Regent Theater in Oakland, California. The theater's acoustic is a perfect partner for the interpretation of conductor McGegan. The orchestral sound is layered front to back most effectively. Balance and blend have that magical quality that caress your senses, but oh, so gently. And remember, vibrato is verboten. With that in mind, the recording captures beautifully the stresses and subtle undulations of Baroque practice.
What I like especially about Keith Johnson's efforts is the almost seamless way he marries an analog-type sound within a digital format. While still preferring his vinyl incarnations, his CD recordings are warm, voiced sensitively, and thus, make the analog/digital debate a near-moot point. Listen to the very special quality of the gut strings in the gentle Grave of Concerto in F, RV 569 for an example of this marriage of ideas.
The HDCD® 24-bit recording highlights the many subtle shadings of instrumental timbres. In particular, bassoons are revealed truthfully - no mean feat in the digital domain. Johnson seems to revel in his ability to capture the unique sound quality of double-reed instruments without the sound becoming harsh. For example, listen to the opening of the Concerto in G minor, RV 577. The two bassoons - they are superb players - trounce methodically the less-important flutes and oboes simply by way of their recorded presence - a good thing? And, with balance a pre-requisite for success, harpsichord and theorbo twinkle almost imperceptibly at the rear of the soundstage - simple, delicate, sweet and beautiful. Conversely, when delivering a more prominent role, the "rhythm section" are displayed to perfection.
In my estimation, the finest example of Vivaldi's genius replicated through Johnson's interpretation can be found in the Grave of Concerto in D, RV 562. The melancholy atmosphere is emphasized with brilliant figurations in solo and tutti violin(s) while being underlined by droning portative organs. Emotion channeled directly through technology. Superb!
Whether recording the full blast of a modern symphony orchestra or the subtleties of Baroque practice, engineer Keith Johnson seems to have a magic elixir. Or, is it simply aural ability combined with exquisite good taste? In my experience, Reference Recordings compact discs are marked by superb musical and production values. Their new Vivaldi for diverse instruments release is no exception. When experiencing Vivaldi's spiritus, Reference Recordings and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are squarely on the side of the righteous. Vivaldi's reputation is held securely in place by the considerable efforts of conductor Nicholas McGegan and can be recommended enthusiastically.
Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1997