Friday, August 31, 2012

Biber & Locke: Battalia, The Tempest

Having firmly established itself at the forefront of modern Vivaldi performance, Il Giardino Armonico explores two masters from the previous generation, rooted in its own cultural milieu. Biber’s Battalia has arguably become the most celebrated sui generis programmatic suite of the seventeenth century with its easy Bohemian juxtaposition of poignant airs and almost choreographic stage music. Too often we hear each implicit detail exaggerated to death; the Italians represent the dissolute revelling of the muskateers with vitality, and yet each movement is conveyed within the bounds of courtly decorum. The group’s leader, Enrico Onofri, provides a memorable and effective gimmick in the March as he walks from right to left and disappears into the distance.

His playing in the Sonata violono solo representativa is just as impressive as the exceptional readings by Reinhard Goebel and Romanesca’s Andrew Manze. Though less freewheeling than either, Onofri’s account is just as acutely characterized: the Cuckoo is positively charming, the Frog leaps in a spontaneous counterpoint of improvised special effects and the Hen and the Cock fly by the seats of their pants with a stirring full-throttled sound and thrilling technical precision.

Such qualities are apparent in the remarkable C minor ‘partia’ from Biber’s most challenging scordatura consort publication, Harmonia artificiosa of 1696. Composed for two violas d’amore, this is a beguiling work which has received its finest performances to date from the Purcell Quartet and The Rare Fruits Council. Il Giardino Armonico generates a ringing, almost orchestral palette – darkened by a tenor chalumeau – upon which float these soft-grained viole. Less agreeable is the Allemande which is fussily handled and never quite allowed to bed down into its natural harmonic rhythm; the ‘Aria variata’ that ends the suite has reflective sobriety nonchalantly sacrificed for Mediterranean effervescence.

This is both the strength and weakness of Il Giardino in northern and central European repertoire, exemplified in Locke’s music for The Tempest, from which a majestic orchestral suite can be wrought. The musical ideas are impressive (the famous Curtain Tune with its force-ten wind finds a natural home here), but too often miscast with ill-suited outbursts imposed on such temperate dances. Overall though, this is a dynamic and distinctive programme with some brilliant performances. --Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Gramophone [2/1999]

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