Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico (Academy of Ancient Music, dir. Christopher Hogwood)
I’m not given to sweeping statements, but I think it’s fair to say this recording changed my life. A bit of background: my parents had at one time belonged to a subscription service called The Musical Heritage Society, which mailed LP records on a monthly basis. Although the service sometimes offered recordings of the standard repertory, the stock-in-trade of this company was music by lesser-known composers. At some point (I really have no idea, but I’m going to guess when I was eight or ten years old) I started listening to some of these records. Wagenseil, Fux, Muffat, Dittersdorf, these were some of the delights that I found, to say nothing of Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, and Handel. As I grew older and began to pursue music as a profession I always remembered this music and wanted to play it on my modern oboe, but except for the standards by Bach and Handel, I did not find that very many of my fellow students shared my interest in this older music. I played baroque music whenever I could, but mostly I continued on the path of learning to become an orchestral oboist, and completed my Masters degree at the Juilliard School in 1981. Finding myself out of school, living in New York, looking for opportunities (and working part-time to make ends meet), I began to think more about the historical performance movement, which was still in its infancy in North America. One day I came across this Vivaldi recording in a record shop and decided to buy it.
I’ll never forget those first hours of listening to these performances. Sure, I knew Vivaldi’s music, I had even played a sonata or two, and was familiar with many of his oboe concertos. But this was Vivaldi like I had never heard! Everything about it was a revelation: the amazing sonority of the baroque string instruments, and the exuberant way the performers seemed to revel in this sound; the wonderful way the music sounded so in tune, and at the same time so earthy and natural, and the way this was possible when there was little or no vibrato; and most of all, the fantastic sense of musical gesture that made the music come alive in a way I had never imagined possible! And the best thing (in a way) was the fact that in those first hours of listening I wasn’t even thinking about any of these things (that came later), but was just transfixed by the way the essence of the music came alive: the performances seemed to perfectly express Vivaldi’s music. Up to that moment I hadn’t been impressed with the baroque oboe playing I had heard, and wasn’t all that interested in learning to play the instrument. But now I thought to myself, “I want to play music with these guys, or other musicians who are thinking and playing like this, and if the way to do that is to play the baroque oboe, then I’m ready to start tomorrow.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Bach: St. Matthew Passion (Concentus Musicus Wien, dir. Nikolaus Harnoncourt)
Unlike the experience I described above, this recording grew on me over time. As I began to play the baroque oboe and learn more about period performance, I began to understand and appreciate what makes this recording truly great. The performers’ understanding of performance practice enables them to access Bach’s musical world more fully, and this contributes to the depth of expression that makes this recording so profoundly moving. Older performances and recordings of this work were famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) for their extreme slow tempos and often overwrought expression, forcing a Wagnerian aesthetic onto Bach’s music. This recording strips all that away, like the well-known metaphor of cleaning an old painting, and brings this incomparable music vividly to life. I had always loved Bach’s music, but this recording made me realize how much more deep and meaningful it could be when one makes the effort to understand it on its own terms, rather than through the distorting lens of a later musical aesthetic.
Pachelbel Canon, J.S. Bach, Handel, & Vivaldi (Musica Antiqua Köln)
I probably first heard this recording in 1984, or thereabouts. One of my closest friends, a harpsichordist, worked at that time for Polygram Records in New York, and as a result, had access to many recordings. One day he showed up with this one, and we sat down to listen to it together. The Pachelbel Canon is a fine reading of that war-horse of a piece, and is performed here about twice as fast as it was traditionally performed at that time. But it was the other works on this disc that really seized our imaginations: the second orchestral suite of Bach, a Handel trio sonata, and La Follia trio sonata by Vivaldi. As in the Hogwood recording above, the way the performers' sense of musical gesture brings the music to life is thrilling. But another aspect that is particularly evident in this recording is the range of expression that the performance practice unlocks for the performers. They show that there is no need for the music to be uniformly beautiful in a detached way, as if all music from this time had to be performed with the strictness that frock coats and powdered wigs seem to imply. There is earthiness here, and a real commitment to performing the music rhetorically, really letting the phrases speak to the listener.