Critic's Notebook

Early music is still being reinvented

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
The great advances in playing old music are the result of reinvention,' says @markswed

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-articulate 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 lesser-known 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 two-dozen 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 three-piece suit with flowery open-collar 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.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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