Great composers don’t always “get” other great composers. Berlioz, in his idolatry of Gluck, devalued both Lully and Handel in irrelevant comparisons to the great reformer. Stravinsky, despite a semi-comprehending admiration for Gesualdo and Pergolesi (whom his imagination tended to recast in his own image), seemed unable to imagine earlier styles of music on their own terms and famously dismissed Vivaldi by saying that “he didn’t compose 400 concertos; he composed one concerto 400 times.” Given the skewed view that once existed of the Italian Baroque and how its music had originally been played, it’s understandable that this music — which is above all “performer’s music” not “analyst’s music” — didn’t reveal its extravagant charms. The charms were not those of the Urtext generation. Goodness knows that the zillions of vinyl representations of Vivaldi’s music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s, with performances in which provincial German orchestras sawed away rather mechanically, may not go far to explain the dizzying rise in popularity that the music of “The Red Priest” nevertheless enjoyed.

Stravinsky probably didn’t know about the many written accounts of performances of that repertory when it was new. These are replete with descriptions of passionate playing of a sort that we don’t see enough of these days, with audience reactions that often involved even the loss of emotional control. This was not the scenario at Vivaldi performances of, say, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra — or, for that matter, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — during the century just past.

Thus it was with a shock of recognition that I first heard the Sicilian violinist Fabio Biondi’s group Europa Galante a dozen years ago. It was more a recognition of an ideal that I had been taught in music-history seminars than of anything I had previously heard from orchestras. They have since recorded hours of Vivaldi (as well as of much other 17th- and 18th-century music proceeding from Italianate models), and I challenge anybody to miss the great individuality of content and character in these finely-limned virtuoso performances. The prolific Venetian certainly didn’t write 400 of these:

or these:

The succeeding movements of this concerto are on YouTube as well.

Europa Galante, happily, has not neglected to extend the passion to vocal music:


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Leonhardt in Autumn

July 15, 2009

Leonhardt-Gustav-46 Many today spend their careers trying to figure out, with the help of what documents survive, how music of the past was performed. When this is done for musical reasons and produces artistic results, it is an unmixed blessing. I’ve just come upon an interesting interview with Gustav Leonhardt in which he sounds a striking warning:

And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.

The interview goes on to make provocative points about the rehearsal of chamber music (your ensemble is no good if it requires a lot of talk and rehearsal) and conducting (it’s the easiest thing in music performance, if the highest-paid).