Baroque on an Even Keel: Ensemble 415 at the Library of Congress, October 8, 2010
Though respected and famous when they were written, the concertos and sonatas of Tomaso Albinoni now serve primarily as Baroque wallpaper when a classical radio DJ needs something to fill the ten minutes between the end of the last piece and the next traffic and weather update. Thus, I hoped that Ensemble 415‘s concert at the Library of Congress on Friday night, featuring three Albinoni pieces among its seven works, would shed new light on this composer.
The six members who made the trip for the concert, the ensemble’s U.S. debut, entered the stage to warm applause confidently began the second of his 12 Op. 2 sonatas à cinque (in five parts), which turned out to be…really boring. Unmemorable melodies, textures you’ve heard a hundred times, harmonies verging on banal, and little effort by Ensemble 415 to do anything but simply render this pretty music with extreme prettiness.
And this they did, one must admit. Leader and violinist Chiara Banchini, violinist Eva Borhi, violin/viola switch-hitter Peter Barczi, violist Patricia Gagnon, cellist Gaetano Naisllo, and harpsichord player Michele Barchi all displayed the utmost mastery of their instruments. Throughout the concert, they intoned their notes with a precision that eludes all but the finest period groups. Even more impressively, they all can boast wonderful instruments that they used Friday to make gorgeous sounds, sounds that made me wonder how often anyone in the actual Baroque era ever got to hear playing like that. (The acoustics of the Lib o’ Cong’s Coolidge Auditorium, helpful to all who toil therein, seemed to bestow a particularly golden glow on these players.)
Yet throughout the concert, the 415ers’ phrasing, attack, and tempos seemed to belong to another era of period-style Baroque playing. Lots of Baroque-playin’ groups nowadays emphasize rhythmic vigor and free phrasing (with plenty of ornaments) to give a feeling of creating the music anew on the spot. That wasn’t happening Friday night; the group, under Banchini’s direction, consistently declined to dig into the occasional virtuoso flights in the music.
Indeed, when Banchini herself took a solo turn in Bach’s concerto for violin and strings (this one realized from the harpsichord concerto BWV 1056), she didn’t swagger like a soloist until halfway through the Presto third movement, where she finally got a little rough and wild with her double-stops. Banchini seemed happiest playing with the tutti than putting her own playing on display; while there is merit in that approach, it does not make for an especially invigorating concerto performance.
The 415ers did program some music that excited in and of itself. Georg Muffat’s Sonata no. 2 in G minor from Armonico Tributo throws curves at listeners, with stops and starts in its initial Allegro that the ensemble played with discipline but without urgency, and adventurous harmonies in the penultimate Grave section that sounded about as good on Friday as they’re ever going to sound. Henricus Albicastro’s Concerto à 4 (Op. 7, No. 2) featured grinding dissonances in its slow sections and some (relatively) explosive outbursts in the fast ones. Here, one had to admire the 415ers’ approach, as the dissonances seemed to well up from nowhere and felt strongest and most disturbing a couple seconds after they left, and the fast sections sounded the more bracing in the aftermath of such oddness.
And Banchini and Borhi, along with the rhythm section of Nasillo and Barchi, rose to the technical demands of the most difficult (not to mention the most display-oriented) work on the program, Vivaldi’s Trio sonata no. 12 from his Op. 1, the variations on the “La follia” theme. The cascades of notes in the faster variations sounded thrillingly clean and clear with Banchini and Borhi as formidable partners, and Nasillo dispatched his continuo duties with incisive, hesitation-free, faultless playing, Barchi providing a firm harmonic foundation. Yet Banchini and Borhi never went to that last risky degree of desperation to try to get the blood boiling, and the lyrical variations, though impeccably played, didn’t have the extra impact that could have come from an even more dramatic contrast with the other material.
The “La Follia” variations provide enough drama in and of themselves to be thoroughly satisfying in a performance such as Ensemble 415 gave on Friday, but the sonatas of Albinoni, as evidenced in the two other works the ensemble played from the composer’s Op. 2, do not. It’s too bad; I had really been hoping for a reason to rethink Albinoni.
Other People’s Perspectives (added belatedly): Charles T. Downey and Joe Banno. In these other reviews you can see how other people are more sensitive to occasional missed or ugly notes than I am. I swear I noticed a lot of that but didn’t really remember it when it came time to write the review.