Early mu­sic, but rein­vented

Con­certo Köln, L.A. Phil show how to take dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the same goal.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARK SWED

In her ethe­real, epi­graphic new book “Spon­ta­neous Par­tic­u­lars: The Telepa­thy of Ar­chives,” the poet Su­san Howe muses on the dif­fer­ence be­tween what can be a “vis­ual and acous­tic shock” of en­coun­ter­ing a text on a musty, faded fo­lio found in a li­brary and the phys­i­cal in­dif­fer­ence the text might oth­er­wise as­sume when ex­am­ined on­line.

Early mu­sic spe­cial­ists know that shock. They live for the chance to con­jure up what Howe calls the “pre-ar-

tic­u­late empty theater” an old manuscript might sug­gest. They em­brace as their motto Howe’s ques­tion: “What dif­fer­ence does it make if what we see be­fore our mind’s eye has al­ready been in­ter­preted?”

Last week, Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall was vis­ited by ex­cep­tional early mu­sick­ers of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and sen­si­bil­i­ties. They had in com­mon mu­sic by Han­del and Vivaldi but lit­tle else other than the burning need to ar­tic­u­late pre-ar­tic­u­late manuscripts, which is all we know about how Han­del and Vivaldi made mu­sic.

Con­certo Köln, a for­mi­da­ble Ger­man pe­riod-in­stru­ment group founded in Cologne 30 years ago, played a cu­ri­ous pro­gram of lesser­known con­cer­tos by a range of com­posers — Tele­mann, Corelli and Francesco Du­rante, along with Vivaldi and Han­del. The Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic was led by the ef­fu­sive French con­duc­tor and harp­si­chordist Em­manuelle Haïm, in ex­cerpts from Baroque stan­dards — Vivaldi’s “The Four Sea­sons” and Han­del’s opera “Gi­ulio Ce­sare.”

The rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ap­proaches were con­se­quences of var­i­ous fac­tors — some acous­ti­cal, some schol­arly and some mu­si­cal. But per­son­al­ity proved more im­por­tant than his­toric­ity. To­day we think our­selves blessed with the doc­u­men­ta­tion. Two cen­turies from now we pre­sume that mu­si­cians will know ev­ery­thing they need to know about how our mu­sic is meant to sound, as­sum­ing what is on the In­ter­net now lasts.

But we should not nec­es­sar­ily envy them. The great ad­vances in play­ing old mu­sic are the re­sult of rein­ven­tion. A lit­tle knowl­edge is good, but too much can be a strait­jacket.

Con­certo Köln is a vari­able en­sem­ble. It has no mu­sic direc­tor, and the twodozen play­ers us­ing 18th cen­tury strings, winds, harp, man­dolin and key­boards em­ployed no con­duc­tor at Dis­ney. Other than two Ja­panese vi­o­lin­ists (Mayumi Hi­rasaki is the leader), all have Ger­man names. The play­ers were sober. Per­for­mances were un­der­stated. Th­ese in­stru­ments were never meant for such a large room.

But Wed­nes­day night the en­sem­ble was stun­ningly vir­tu­osic — fast, light, rhyth­mi­cally in­fec­tious and in tune. A Han­del con­certo usu­ally heard with or­gan solo was more fla­vor­ful in its orig­i­nal harp ver­sion (with Mar­gret Kröll as soloist). Two Vivaldi con­cer­tos that em­ployed a faint-toned pe­riod man­dolin (played by Anna Torge) were el­e­gant, not demon­stra­tive. Twenty min­utes from Tele­mann’s of­ten bor­ing “Tafel­musik” siz­zled.

Most amaz­ing of all was an en­core, the An­dante move­ment from the Sym­phony in G mi­nor, Opus 4, No. 2, by an ob­scure French Baroque com­poser, Fran­cois Martin. The play­ers here may have bro­ken a record for the soft­est mu­sic ever played by an en­sem­ble in Dis­ney, mak­ing sounds so faint they might have been au­ral dust shaken off epi­graphic manuscripts in a far-off ar­chive, empty theater filled in by the mod­ern minds of gasp­ing, de­lighted lis­ten­ers.

The first time the L.A. Phil played the “Spring” move­ment of Vivaldi’s “Four Sea­sons” was in 1928, dur­ing the orches­tra’s ninth sea­son. Who knows what that sounded like, but it was surely rad­i­cally ro­man­ti­cized and far less play­ful and rav­ish­ingly col­or­ful than it was Fri­day night with Haïm and mar­velously buoy­ant French vi­o­lin­ist Stéphanie Marie-- De­gand.

Four years ago when Haïm made her de­but with the L.A. Phil, she shook up the play­ers with the im­me­di­ate phys­i­cal­ity of her con­duct­ing. She makes di­rect eye con­tact with mu­si­cians. Her ges­tures are per­sonal, like those of a theater direc­tor get­ting char­ac­ters in a drama to in­ter­act. There is no hid­ing be­hind a stern ex­pres­sion with her. Ex­pres­sion is im­me­di­ate and com­pelling. Back­stage word is that the play­ers, hav­ing loos­ened up, love her.

The two Vivaldi sea­sons (“Sum­mer” fol­lowed “Spring”) were pre­lude to ex­tended ex­cerpts from “Gi­ulio Ce­sare” with coun­tertenor Christophe Du­maux as Cae­sar and so­prano Natalie Des­say as Cleopa­tra. All three of the evening’s French soloists were re­mark­able drama­tists like Haïm, in­ter­act­ing with ev­ery­one on­stage.

Des­say, one of the con­sum­mate mu­sic theater ac­tresses of our day, re­tired from opera two years ago. At 49, her voice shows slight signs of strain, and she did not at­tempt Cleopa­tra’s most florid arias. But she han­dled Han­del’s or­nate lines bril­liantly. She brought a dra­matic in­ten­sity to ev­ery ut­ter­ance, whether flir­ta­tious or ter­ri­fy­ing. In the sad “Piangeró,” she was in com­plete vo­cal and the­atri­cal con­trol, whether re­flect­ing pro­found grav­ity or alarm­ing fury.

Du­maux, a pen­e­trat­ing male alto, proved a breezy Cae­sar. He wore a three­piece suit with flow­ery open­col­lar shirt. He held the first syl­la­ble of the aria “Aure, deh, per pi­età” for longer than seemed pos­si­ble with a sin­gle breath, all the while rak­ishly toy­ing with the dy­nam­ics.

The L.A. Phil, with its mod­ern in­stru­ments, pro­vided a not sur­pris­ingly fuller sound than had Con­certo Köln. Cu­ri­ously, how­ever, th­ese Ger­mans helped make the kind of thing the L.A. Phil ac­com­plished pos­si­ble.

In 1991, Con­certo Köln made a flam­boy­ant record­ing of “Gi­ulio Ce­sare,” un­der con­duc­tor René Ja­cobs, that helped to mod­ern­ize Han­del opera style. Seven years ago, Des­say re­leased a record­ing of 19th cen­tury bel canto arias with Con­certo Köln that was among her early en­coun­ters with the acous­tic shock of pe­riod in­stru­ments.

The telepa­thy in early mu­sic starts in the ar­chives. But what has made it and keeps it rel­e­vant is the telepa­thy be­tween prac­ti­tion­ers lib­er­ated from a sur­feit of his­tory to con­tin­u­ally rein­vent the era.

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

EM­MANUELLE HAÏM was a riv­et­ing pres­ence with Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic.

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

SO­PRANO Natalie Des­say brings a dra­matic in­ten­sity to ev­ery ut­ter­ance.

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