During the 1960s and 1970s the “cold war” of international relations had its musical counterpart in the world of Baroque performance in the stand-off between traditionalists and champions of historically informed performance. Like the Berlin Wall, the barriers that separated these apparently incompatible ideologies gradually tumbled, and mutual antipathy has given way to mutual respect. Il Giardino Armonico belongs to the second wave of period-instrument ensembles that burst onto the musical scene during the 1980s: the time of musical glasnost, when the central concern was to make historical awareness less of an end in itself and more of a means to an end.
Il Giardino Armonico was founded in Milan in 1985 by Giovanni Antonini (recorder and director), Luca Pianca (theorbo/lute) and Paolo Beschi (cello), joined in 1987 by the violinist Enrico Onofri. Their first challenge was to bring Italy up to speed with the developments in historical performance practice taking place north of the Alps. Focussing at first on the works of Antonio Vivaldi, Il Giardino Armonico was keen to highlight the chiaroscuro and rhetorical power of the music in a much more colourful and dramatic way than audiences were used to. In 1996 its recording of Vivaldi’s double and triple concertos for cello and orchestra, with guest soloist Christophe Coin, received a Gramophone Award and the Diapason d’Or. Further success followed with the Grammy Award-winning Vivaldi Album with Cecilia Bartoli, which revived unknown gems from the Red Priest’s operas.
Today, Antonini is concerned with what he sees as an identity crisis in the world of Baroque performance. “There are many excellent groups today but not so many new and interesting ideas about interpretation.”Whereas many period-instrument ensembles draw on a common pool of performers and have begun to sound increasingly similar, Il Giardino Armonico is a close-knit ensemble used to working together and producing an immediately recognisable sound.”I don’t want to lose the personality of the group,” insists Antonini. “We try to work with the same musicians because the language II Giardino Armonico uses to interpret music is very specific.”
This approach is underpinned by a careful study of historical sources and characterised by a spontaneity and dramatic force in performance that result in a language which Antonini feels is much more exuberant than “the dry style proffered by some ensembles, particularly by some English and Dutch groups”. This theatrical style is ideally suited to the opera house, where Il Giardino Armonico has been more at home than most period-instrument ensembles, adding its distinctive voice to production of operas from Monteverdi to Handel.
Flexible enough to expand from three to thirty players according to the demands of the music, Il Giardino Armonico is as comfortable in chamber music as in the most demanding orchestral repertory. A finely honed sense of ensemble lends its chamber music powerful expressive weight while bringing extraordinary delicacy, intimacy and clarity to the complex part-writing of works such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the group’s recording of which won the ECHO Prize in 1998. The music of Bach’s sons has so far generally marked the limit of II Giardino Armonico’s chronological ambitions, though there are plans for them to record some of Haydn’s “Sturm and Drang” and Paris symphonies. But, rather than push too far into the eighteenth century, in the coming years Antonini is more interested in looking back again at the instrumental repertory of the seventeenth century and building on the success of its V iaggio Musicale CD, one of the group’s most enterprising recordings to date and recipient of a French “10 de Repertoire” award in 2000.
Handel’s Concerti grossi, op.6, have played an important role in Il Giardino Armonico’s programmes over the past fifteen years. The 250th anniversary of Handel’s death in 2009 provides an ideal opportunity to commit the works to disc. For Antonini, Handel’s Op.6 stands as one of the pillars of Baroque orchestral music, alongside Vivaldi’s L Estro Armonico and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto.. While Vivaldi pioneered the Italian solo concerto and Bach perfected it, Handel modelled his works on the classic Concerti grossi, op.6, of Arcangelo Corelli. Handel composed his twelve concertos in just over a month and issued them in 1739 to coincide, apparently, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Corelli’s set.
Il Giardino Armonico takes a characteristically dramatic view of the music — and a distinctively Italian one. Handel did, after all, hone his compositional skills in Italy before settling in England, and continued to compose Italian operas for most of the rest of his life. In being probably the first Italian period-instrument ensemble ever to record the Op.6 Concerti grossi complete, Il Giardino Armonico hopes to reclaim Handel for Italy by exploring the unique qualities that their native temperament can bring to the music. Antonini wants to avoid the pompous, ceremonial side of Handel’s musical character often heard in performances of such works as the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks “For me, there’s a much more interesting side to Handel’s music — that’s the Italian side: the `singing aspect’ of his instrumental music which is less English and much more Italian. The young Handel came to Italy and his writing changed after he visited Venice, Florence and Rome, where he met Corelli. This is something which stayed with him, and is something I want to show in a fresh — Italian — perspective.”
For Antonini, each concerto is “its own world”. The sixty or so individual movements reflect the extraordinary breadth of Handel’s interests at this time: from the salty English Hornpipe to the courtly French Overture; from hints ofVivaldi in the first Allegro of Concerto No.3 to echoes of Scarlatti’s fashionable bharpsichord sonatas in the penultimate movement of Conccrto No.5.With such a wide-ranging set of concertos, the greatest challenge facing performers is finding the right character and personality for each work. Antonini’s first step has been to restore and expand the oboe parts that Handel later added to Concertos 1, 2, 5 and 6, but which are seldom played today.
This release marks the start both of Il Giardino Armonico’s residency at the Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes in Valladolid, Spain, and of the ensemble’s new recording contract with Decca.