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Thursday, March 13, 2014

From Italy with Love

From the Record Shelf Dept.: Two recent issues on the IDIS label remind us that there were great performances long before digital recordings hit the scene.


IN 1959, THE CONCEPT of historically informed performances was rarefied enough that its proponents tended to be radical fiddlers wielding curved bows. Julian Bream was playing lute music on a lute-like instrument that was a guitar at heart, and you were likely to hear Bach’s Brandenburgs with piano continuo. Which is to explain why the sound of I Musici was at once radical and reassuring. This Italian ensemble of strings and harpsichord was founded in 1951 and is still going strong.

When they recorded an LP of Locatelli’s concerti grossi in 1959, it was a major tribute to a neglected composer. The string sound is rich and vibrant, a contrast to the more austere approach that would overtake the early-music world a decade later. The tempos are deliberate, much slower than you’ll hear in more recent recordings, but keeping the movements not overlong by omitting repeats. My ears like the contrast between this recording and another favorite, a brisk mid-90s version by Capella Istrolpolitana on Naxos that gives you all of Locatelli’s Op. 1 on two CDs.

On this IDIS reissue of the old I Musici version are Op. 1 nos. 8, 11, and 12. It’s paired with a 1962 recording of the first three concertos from Vivaldi’s Op. 4 set subtitled “La Stravaganza,” which are violin concertos in the “Four Seasons” style but with a less programmatic, more technically inventive approach. The recorded sound is brighter, highlighting the continuo switch to organ, and the tempos are more in keeping with what’s chosen today.

IDIS also has issued a pair of live recordings by Trio di Trieste coupling two of the greatest works in their repertory: Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio and Schubert’s Trio No. 1 in B-flat. This threesome had a half-century career beginning in the 1940s, performing together with the assurance of an old marriage, with distinctive voices sharing a concerted point of view.

And it wasn’t a play-it-safe ensemble. You can hear it in the oddly jazzy development section of the “Archduke,” which gets a wonderfully unexpected accelerando, and in the jagged propulsion of the work’s finale. There’s a throughline to the piece as well, making the Scherzo a logical lead-in to the heartbreaking slow movement.

The Schubert benefits as well form this approach, which puts it on a par with any of the many more recent recordings. Here you get another heartbreaker of an andante, which makes all the more sense because violin and cello don’t try to sound at all alike – they need to be contrasting voices in order to work out their plaint.

Where I’m quick to accuse performers of over-interpreting when they inject unnecessary stops and slowdowns, this trio makes considered choices, such as the rubato in the finale when you’re led to expect a big moment and it breaks instead into a sudden folkdance that staggers to a finish before the movement’s main subject repeats.

The Trio’s recordings purport to be live, although I find no aural evidence of that. The Musici-Locatelli recordings sound as if they were dubbed from an LP – there’s a small amount of crackle at the start and a couple of instances of inner-groove distortion. But IDIS tends to look for recordings that qualify as public domain in Italy, and probably aren’t asking for the master tapes.

You could call these pre-historic historic recordings. No dressing in digital finery here, but both ensembles won well-deserved reputations as being at the top of their class, and need to be considered alongside what’s come along since.

Acquisition links:

I Musici: Locatelli and Vivaldi (IDIS 6675)
Trio di Trieste: Beethoven and Schubert (IDIS 6678)
Locatelli: Concerti Grossi Op. 1, Nos. 1-6 (Capella Istrolpolitana)
Locatelli: Concerti Grossi Op. 1, Nos. 7-12 (Capella Istrolpolitana)

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