I've not been a fan of Trevor Pinnock's. I'm not fond of, or sold on, "period performances", particularly those which produce thin, wiry, gratingly unpleasant violin screeching, and lifeless wind tone. Not that Trevor Pinnock is the biggest offender in this regard, but his leanings toward this playing style have never appealed to me.
I took a chance on this new one from Linn, though, for several reasons. This is an SACD. And it's from Linn, from which I have enjoyed excellent recorded sound in the past. And finally, the Royal Academy of Music is far from being a period specialist group, and their youthfulness would almost certainly provide a freshness and spontaneity not always heard.
This Linn delivers on all counts!
Concentrating on the main offering here, Mozart's Gran Partita, I'm thrilled to report the SACD sound is superlative. Clear, clean, warm, articulate and with beautiful tonality.
Second, the Academy does indeed play with a joy of new discovery. What's more, the playing is absolutely as accomplished and professional as you'll ever hear in this work. Two notables among these musicians: 1) the lovely, rounded tone of the basset horns. With some players, bassets can sound rather gray and bleak. And honky. Not so here; they sound like lower-pitched clarinets, with beautiful, rich, melodious tone. And 2) this contrabassoon is never thick or woolly. It is splendidly focused like a bassoon, only lower, and is blended perfectly with the rest of the group. This is not often the case, actually. And many times a bass viol is utilized instead. But I always prefer the contra bassoon, if it's played and recorded as expertly as it is here.
Third, Trevor Pinnock's leadership is most impressive. The sense of joy he draws from these players is awe-inspiring. And his chosen tempos are spectacular! One is reminded in the first movement, after the slow introduction, the tempo indication is Allegro molto. The molto is usually missing. But molto it is here! Yet it's never breathless, or fast just to be fast. It makes musical sense. And these young players accommodate the tempo with thrilling effortlessness. The Adagio, too, is more moving than usual, and again, makes so much musical sense one can't imagine why it's so often played slower than this. The Allegretto 4th movement, and the Theme and Variations 6th movement are, again, more forward-moving than usual, yet with such musical phrasing and natural, flowing expression, they make perfect sense. Mr. Pinnock really understands this piece and the relationship of tempos of each movement. And it goes without saying, the finale is most certainly molto Allegro here, and as exhilarating as ever.
Only one other recent recording comes to mind as being in the same league as this one: the 2017 recording from the LSO Wind Ensemble on the LSO Live label. This is also an SACD, with warm, beautiful sound. And it features playing of the utmost refinement, unified ensemble, and joyful, alert tempos. They use a bass viol rather than a contrabassoon, which is the only regret I have with it.
This new one from Linn, though, has another potential advantage over the LSO Live: a coupling. Here we get Haydn's Notturno #8 in G Major. Many of the characteristics regarding tempo and freshness noted above apply here. However, one is immediately confronted with the dreaded thin, lifeless string tone, sans vibrato. This was not an issue in the Mozart, of course, as that piece is for winds only. But the Haydn calls for 6 string players along with a handful of winds. However, once the ear adjusts, and the winds take a more prominent roll, the music reigns supreme. And Linn's beautiful recorded sound helps to minimize the thin string tone. I was not familiar with this piece, and I enjoyed it very much, despite the unpleasant violin sound.
All in all, this release is recommended most enthusiastically. It's absolutely one of the most uplifting and exciting performances of the Gran Partita you're likely to hear. And the recorded sound doesn't get any better than this.
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