It's tempting to start any review of the wonderfully inventive music of Albinoni with a plea that the near anonymity – at least the misperceptions about his life and work – which risk plaguing any kind of understanding about him be set aside in favor of a considered appreciation of his music. It's clear that Chiara Banchini and Ensemble 415 are aware of the struggle to present the composer in a sensible light. They don't let that influence their interpretations unduly, though. In fact their playing takes for granted that the music of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) is worthy of our close and critical attention; and that, once given, such attention is highly likely to yield significant and enduring rewards. This is, for example, the only recording of the works in the current catalog. Yet it is a splendid, thoughtful and mature one, which can be recommended without reserve.
It will still come as something of a shock to many otherwise well-informed music lovers that Albinoni (apart from not writing that "Adagio", which accounts for over half of all CDs of his work which are available) did write more than 50 operas, published 10 collections of music, wrote many cantatas, sonatas, concerti, balletti, serenatas and sacred music. Not to make too much of neglect and misrepresentation which dogs the composer, it is nevertheless useful to wave Albinoni's flag the better to contextualize the six magnificent sonatas presented here. It's a parallel plea to asking for a full understanding the immensely rich Venetian string traditions in which we must situate these pieces of Albinoni's.
For example, Albinoni's gifts for texture, for inventive orchestration, the arrangement of high and low instruments in harmony and counterpoint, are striking in Banchini's interpretation from the first movement of the C Major Sonata (actually number 2: the four movement pieces are played out of numerical sequence). The first two movements, for example, in sonata da chiesa style, display amazing originality worthy of Vivaldi. As the pieces progress the essence of this set, which must surely be an intense emotional depth articulated with a supremely appropriate technique, becomes more and more apparent. Movement after movement turns a new corner, walks confidently into a new space, and gently lifts you up and positions you politely in a new location to observe a telling convention, an enchanting melody or a fresh texture from a new angle.
Ensemble 415 is accordingly committed to conveying not only these innovations of Albinoni; but also the perhaps apparently more routine passages. Their playing has a freshness, a crispness and a polish that can only add to the translucence and vista of Albinoni's writing. But neither director (and violinist) Banchini nor the seven-person Ensemble 415 has allowed inflated "style" – presenting the music with undue gloss or varnish – to stand in for Albinoni's musical substance. So not only do they never add anything which was not written in terms of phrasing, emotional depth and interpretative breadth. They also ensure that every nuance provided by the composer is celebrated.
In approaching these six sonatas, the first stage of assimilation, then, is acceptance of just how inventive, emotionally-charged (listen to the chromatic build up of the first allegro from number 5, [tr.6]. for example) and at the same time technically well-crafted they are. On second hearing, perhaps, it becomes easier to take them for what they are, to see them from Albinoni's viewpoint. And to think of them as being closer to the clarity and drive of Corelli than to the somewhat more formulaic efforts of "lesser" Baroque string writers. Banchini takes much of the credit for this: her unmuddied and trenchant sense of tempi and consistency of momentum confer upon movement after movement a life that stays with us well after the last note has sounded.
In some ways this is typical of Venetian music as a whole for it draws on so many sunny and colorful images and themes – particularly the wry and the comedic. Banchini and Ensemble 415 seem to have locked into this vibrancy, while not turning their backs on the profundities of Albinoni's writing, nor yet indulging themselves in the potentially maudlin (that "Adagio" again): the grave (first) movement from sonata number 4 [tr.9] is a good example. The dour and melancholy seem to be there for a reason. Not merely because Albinoni knew how to create them. This heightens the impact of the following fugal allegro assai [tr.10] all the more; it results in a deep satisfaction… every instrumental line, what's more, is as clean and pure as the Lagoon must have been in the eighteenth century. It rippled with the reflections of the architecture. But kept its (and their) integrity: in other words, the harmonic allusions which Albinoni feels free to make – throughout the same sonata's second adagio movement [tr.11], for example, are whole and unforced. Yet they are constructed. By a genius. That the exposure of Albinoni afforded by recordings like this is so candid and exciting is all to the good.
If there is a criticism of this well-recorded CD with just 54 minutes of music in an appropriately faithful acoustic, it'd be the liner notes. While their intent is clear and some of the content is helpful, the tone and wording (regardless of the fact that the English version is necessarily a translation) is too flowery and rhetorical to mean very much. There are strange emphases and allusions. No matter. This is a CD that should find its way directly onto the wish-list of all Baroque music enthusiasts. And, just as importantly, onto that of anyone who might appreciate splendidly rich string playing without sensation, but with every measure special.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey