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Playing With Fire

April 15, 2008

With its latest release on the Dorian label, Musica Pacifica returns to repertoire that has earned it a fiery reputation, the virtuoso Italian repertoire of the mid-18th century. The disc centers on the most venerated master of the concerto, Antonio Vivaldi, but is fleshed out with concertos by two different Giuseppes, Tartini and Sammartini.
As the genre’s definition suggests, the band was obliged to complement the ensemble (the usual cast of four) with a quartet of strings and a theorbo (bass lute). The small forces result in a fresh, lean take on works that can get bogged down even in reduced-size modern orchestras.

Listen to the Music

As usual, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock steals the show, balancing wild abandon and poised elegance like nobody else. While you cannot hear the complete second movement of Tartini’s Concerto in A Major online, this movement can’t go without mention. The track is a high point, revealing an austere beauty and poignancy often forgotten in this repertoire. If you want to hear it, you’ll have to buy the disc.

There are a lot of tracks available on the Web site, however. Listeners will have to be patient with the rendition of Vivaldi’s F-Major Concerto, RV 98, “La Tempesta di Mare,” the first download (listen to the Allegro online). There’s nothing wrong with the ensemble’s interpretation; what troubles is remarkably bad intonation. Regrettably, the tuning throughout this piece is, in a word, rancid. From the outset, Judith Linsenberg’s recorder is significantly sharp. Unison passages between the violin and recorder make this depressingly evident, and more disagreements between Michael McCraw’s bassoon and the recorder’s lines exacerbate the problem.

Perhaps the producer was enamored with the ensemble’s rhythmic precision, but this issue really shouldn’t have been let go. The group could have retuned the keyboards and tried again, or ditched this piece entirely in favor of something else. After all, this isn’t a recorder concerto, so the transcription might be partly to blame. As it stands, the opening tracks make the hair on the back of my neck stand up — and not in a good way.
Concerted Effort
Fortunately, there’s plenty to redeem the group after this false start. In its rendering of the Allegro, from Vivaldi’s Sonata in A Minor, RV 86, McCraw and Linsenberg are dead-on (listen online). What a wonderful sonority the two make, playing parallel arpeggiated figures perfectly in tune (see, they can do it), with exactly paralleled articulations and a supple flexibility of tempo. The clarity of the rapid passagework by McCraw shows why he boasts such a high reputation; Linsenberg alternates fire with warm, dulcet tones from her recorder.

It’s nice, too, that the ensemble opted for lute and organ continuo on this piece. The choice might not work as well in concert, but it shows off everyone’s best qualities in the context of a recording. The playing reflects professionalism of the highest caliber, and alone is worth the price of the CD.

As if that weren’t enough, the group’s recording of Sammartini’s Concerto in F Major bursts forth like a ray of light after the lovely timbre of the previous tracks (listen to the Allegro online). You get the brightness of Linsenberg’s soprano recorder paired perfectly with Blumenstock’s violin, sometimes in unison and sometimes in parallel thirds. In the Allegro and the following Siciliano (listen to the Siciliano online), the ensemble moves and breathes like a single body. Now here’s a performance that would make me want to hear this group’s live concerts — or listen to its record again and again and again.

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is currently enrolled in the graduate program in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.