Palladian Ensemble – An Excess of Pleasure – Works of MATTEIS, LOCKE, PURCELL, etc. [TrackList Follows] – Linn BKD 010, 65:43 (10/31/95 & 3/11/16) ****½:
(Pamela Thorby; recorders/ Rachel Podger; violin/ Joanna Levine Viola da Gamba/ William Carter; theorbo, guitar)
A welcome reissue of the Baroque chamber super-band Palladian Ensemble’s debut recording.
Between their formation in 1991 and 2003, when violinist Rachel Podger left to pursue a solo career, the Palladian Ensemble made ten remarkable recordings for Linn Records. Except for the first, which is under review here, on which Joanna Levine plays viola da gamba in place of regular Susan Heinrich, the ensemble has remained the same. Seven of these recordings received lofty Diapason awards. Over these 12 years, they have established themselves as a consistent and premier Baroque chamber group.
For me, this ensemble of theorbo/lute, violin, viola da gamba and recorder is distinctive for its harpsichord-less sonority. William Carter’s fretted instruments have an expanded role in maintaining the harmonic textures. We feel his presence everywhere in the ensemble, whether plucking the deep notes on the theorbo or driving the rhythm with his bright-hued Baroque guitar. Occasionally, as in the Ciaconna, he showcases his virtuosity on a solo arrangement.
Violinist Rachel Podger is the most familiar name in this group. She has earned an enormous reputation as an exponent of Bach on award-winning recordings over the last two decades. During that time, she has become both Professor of Baroque Violin at Guildhall School of Music and concertmaster of the famed English Concert. Her stunning 1739 Pesarinius violin is instantly recognizable and indeed is among the most expressive voices in the field of Early Music, especially as it is served by the excellent acoustics of Linn engineers.
Complementing Ms. Podger on the front line is Pamela Thorby, among the finest players of her generation. Besides dazzling technique, as demonstrated in the “Ground after the Scotch Humour” by Niccolo Matteis, she has tonal signature on both the soprano and the alto, sounding very much like two different players. On the famous Purcell “Chaconne,” it is the lower instrument that shows how ravishing the recorder can be; in combination with the violin it is indeed an “excess of pleasure.”
On this recording, the viola da gamba bolsters the ensemble from beneath, supporting it. Later recordings by the Palladian Ensemble, especially those dedicated to the French Baroque, find a more prominent role for the instrument, but here it measures out the dance like a pulse or thrums agreeably down in the mix.
For all their polish and refinement, this group really knows how to have fun. On this welcome reissue of their first record, rollicking “ayres” by Matteis figure prominently. It is open-air, spring morning music. Matteis was a 17th century celebrity for his show-stopping fiddling, and Podger makes the most of this sometimes overly florid rhetoric, but it is the recorder that seems to be the most enthusiastic; if not for her formidable technique and good taste, these tracks could have represented an “excess of piping.”
More substantial is the “Broken Consort Suite No. 2” of Matthew Locke. The alto-violin dialogue is typically plangent in the Purcellian mood. The matchless purity of the group’s sound and the depth and transparency of the recording are truly impressive here. Geminiani’s chummy air “Auld Bob Morrice “ presents us with a Scotch folk tune and a clumsy little jig with tiresome divisions. This is the kind of music that the group would later explore on their award-winning “Held By the Ears,” a kind Early Music-Celtic crossover.
A sonata by John Blow aptly shows the distinctive simplicity of the English style; The interest lies in the subtle blend of the ensemble rather than in showy melodies. There follow some improvisations on the folk tune “John Come Kiss Me Now,” which features the viola da gamba rather handsomely. We need an injection of Italian art, and that is supplied by Biagio Marini’s “Sonata Sopra Fuggi Dolente.” The two melody instruments spar and dance with the genial formality of cavaliers and courtiers.
This is a charming record, and it is a good sign that Linn has seen fit to reissue this first recording. It suggests that they may reissue the others on what they call their Echo Series. Among those are some of the finest Early Music recordings of the ‘90s, especially the group’s performance of the Bach Trio Sonatas” but as also the music of the French court on “The Sun King’s Paradise.” It should be added that the liner notes written by founding member, William Carter, are excellent on all of their releases, his deft pen exhibiting the super-high standards of Linn production.
1. Aria Sopra La Bergamasca
2. Ayres for the Violin: Aria sagnuola a due corde
3. Ayres for the Violin: Diverse bizzarie Sopra La Vecchia