Seeing Double at Miller Theatre – Bach and Vivaldi

It almost felt a bit like the early days of the early music movement last night at Columbia University's Miller Theatre, where I heard the REBEL Baroque Ensemble zip their way through double concerti by J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.  And I mean, to a certain extent, the bad old days.  Tempi were swift, to the point of depriving the slower movements of any emotion or pathos, and making the fast movements evoke that old metaphor of "sewing machine Bach."  On top of that, the sound was wiry and scrappy as the one-to-a-part ensemble – perhaps having a historical basis – deprived the music of an essential factor for this repertory, the contrast of concertino and ripieno.  That is, the textures of accompanying orchestra and solo duos were so matched that there was little contrast, and the contrast is an essential feature of baroque concerti.  Add occasional intonation problems in the solos, and you have a recipe for unsatisfying Bach and Vivaldi.   Too bad, because these performers are all virtuosi, and I have heard them playing much more convincingly on other occasions – especially as part of a larger ensemble down at Trinity Church.

My advice to them: slow down just slightly in the allegros, and more than slightly in the middle movements, and give the music a chance to breath.  It will help with your intonation, and certainly make your sound quality more beautiful.  The worst sin, to my mind, came in the largo of Bach's great Double Concerto in D MInor for 2 Violins, where the music sounded busy when it should have sounded serene….

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