Each year the magical setting of the gardens of the Castle of Versailles (one of the most visited sites in France and, indeed, Europe) are the setting for a fairy-tale fountain display. Devised during the reign of Louis XIV, this impressive spectacle set to music reflected the power and the majesty of the King himself. This year, the musical programme has been entrusted to Jordi Savall, who has selected some of the finest treasures from the Alia Vox catalogue. This is a landmark album, a unique selection performed by the leading specialists in the repertoire, those same artists who popularised this music and contributed to the success that it enjoys today.
Loving performances caught in lovely sound, so what's not to love? Not, as it turns out, much, but not, regrettably, nothing at all. Jordi Savall, the gambist cum conductor who directs Le Concert Des Nations, is a genial, even affectionate leader who in these four light works of Mozart grants his players a considerable amount of interpretive freedom. Le Concert Des Nations, Savall's all-purpose classical and pre-classical chamber orchestra, responds with funny, even frothy, playing is as technically assured as it is brilliantly colorful. Alia Vox, Savall's label for everything he records from El Sabio to Monteverdi, catches the performances in a warm, natural, and deep acoustic of amazing vividness.
This is a reissue of a recording from 1993 (re-released a few years ago and deleted in 2003), recently remastered for SACD, and it really impresses with a renewed presence and impact, even on standard CD playback. As I said in my original review, Savall's reading "comes as close as these things can to placing us in the best seat in the house and treats us to a rare experience: the sensation of believing we're hearing a ruggedly familiar piece for the first time. Literally bursting with energy, scintillating strings, blazing horns, and incisive winds, and never boring even for one second, these performances give you Handel at his most exciting." If you have the earlier release, you probably don't need this one–unless you now own an SACD system–but it does deserve a place in every Handel collection, not only for the unsurpassed performances, but also for the effect of Savall's several decidedly "non-standard" tempos(!), and of course for the phenomenal sound, which now must have reached its ultimate realism in this format.
“…this live 2006 performance… is given in its original orchestral form in the location for which it was intended - the chapel of Santa Cueva in Cádiz… Played on period instruments the performance… expertly motivated by Jordi Savall, achieving a fine blend of solemnity and austerity with intimacy of feeling. …this is the ultimate in authentic performance.” (BBC Music Magazine)
This interpretation is a perfect match to Savall's equally beautiful Art of the Fugue. Here you find even more variety in the blend of instruments. I am not going to have only one version of this music and my first recommendation is Münchinger's more emotional recording on Decca. When it comes to colourful instrumentation, however, Savall is the winner, and the direction & playing needs no justification, it is simply wonderful, even if I doubt this folk music style reflects the spirit of the baroque era.
In the semi-darkness within a grotto beneath the church of Santo Rosario in Cadiz, the bishop pronounced one of the seven Last Words of Christ, then, during the ensuing silence, the orchestra played… Commissioned from Haydn in 1786, these seven mystical sonatas, with their sombre melody, take their inspiration from the rhythm of each of the seven Words. Preceded by a noble Prelude and followed by an impressive Terremoto (Earthquake), there have been various versions (piano, string quartet, vocal), but here they are presented in the original version and with all the glowing colours of the Concert des Nations.
The repertoire choices here seem curiously conservative, considering the course of Jordi Savall's career in recent years. The answer to that conundrum lies in the date of recording – 1991. Back then, Savall was a much more mainstream kind of period performance performer, so a disc of Mozart's Requiem would have seemed like a logical choice for him, especially given that the year marked the bicentenary of the composer's death.
Farnace was apparently one of Vivaldi's favorite operas, because he mounted numerous productions in various cities, and wrote six versions of the score, more than of any of his other operas. The conventions of operatic vocal characterizations that came to be standard – higher voices in the sympathetic roles, and lower voices in villainous roles – had not yet been established, and Farnace features a baritone and contralto in the heroic roles, with a soprano as the villain. Soprano Adriana Fernández shines as the wicked Berenice, who is redeemed at the very last minute. She has a full, creamy voice that she deploys appealing agility and warmth. As Tamira, contralto Sara Mingardo sings with power, authority, and deep feeling. In the title role, baritone Furio Zanasi is appropriately heroic, with a rich, refined timbre and the expressive depth to create sympathy for the conflicted protagonist, but he doesn't always have the necessary strength at the bottom of his range. One of his arias, the lyrical and poignant "Gelido in ogni vena," is among the composer's loveliest creations.
As one of the major early music groups founded by virtuoso gambist and conductor Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations has served effectively as his orchestra since 1989 in repertoire ranging from the 17th to the 19th century, covering music of the Baroque and Classical periods on original instruments. This set of J.S. Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos has the recognizable stamp of Savall and his expert musicians on it, in the energetic pacing, stylish ornamentation, radiant instrumental colors, and the authentic character of the music, which is faithfully conveyed through lively ensemble playing. Whether it's a rugged, boisterous sound, which is frequently the tone of Bach's allegros, or a refined, courtly interpretation, as in the affecting slow movements, Savall and his ensemble make the music feel fully alive, spontaneous, and generously expressive, and at no point do the concertos feel like academic exercises or museum pieces. Savall and Le Concert originally released these performances of the Brandenburgs on the Astree label in 1991, but these hybrid SACDs on Savall's own Alia Vox label make the concertos sound better than ever, with discrete placement of parts in the multichannel recording and incredibly lifelike sound, which focuses on the finest details.
Jordi Savall's exemplary performance of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks is among the finest available on disc: refined and precise, but very big, with blood-stirring grandeur. This is just the kind of extroverted, rousing presentation that best highlights the music's open-air ceremonial function. Savall's Le Concert des Nations is essentially a chamber orchestra with double or triple winds, but the sound he elicits from the group is majestic and surprisingly powerful. The playing is crisp and the rhythmic articulation bracing, but the sound is never brash. In fact, more often than not it is seductively sensual, a heady integration of precision and supple, shapely phrasing. Handel left no authoritative edition of the score of Water Music and it has traditionally been divided into three suites, but Savall reorders the material into two suites, a decision that makes more sense in terms of key relationships and that sounds entirely satisfying.