Music review: Ensemble 415 at Library of Congress

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Monday, October 11, 2010

In the context of the historically informed performance movement (which had its pioneers throughout the 20th century, but only blossomed into a full-fledged force in the classical music world during the 1970s), violinist Chiara Banchini -- who founded her period-instrument group Ensemble 415 in 1981 -- qualifies as something of an elder statesman. On the eve of its 30th anniversary, Ensemble 415 remains one of the most elegant and stylistically scrupulous of period bands, as it amply demonstrated in a Library of Congress recital on Friday.

The sextet that performed (a pair each of violins and violas, and a continuo pairing of cello and harpsichord) offered a mixed baroque program in which three string sonatas by Tomaso Albinoni were heard alongside concertos and sonatas by Bach and Vivaldi, and by the less-encountered Georg Muffat and Henricus Albicastro. What the juxtaposition of works made clear was how much those Albinoni sonatas sounded like miniature concertos for two violins -- with Banchini and violinist Eva Borhi carrying on a vigorous and beautifully dovetailed musical dialogue of weaving solo lines.

In contrast, the Bach concerto, BWV 1056r, when presented on this scale, suggested contrapuntally active yet intimate chamber music, especially at the group's relaxed tempos and restrained dynamics. Here, Banchini sounded out of sorts, with some wayward pitches and hollow tones that were not issues elsewhere in the program. Vivaldi's "La Follia" Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 12, in fact, found her -- along with Borhi and cellist Michele Barchi -- in virtuosic form throughout the piece's playful but fiendishly difficult theme and variations.

-- Joe Banno

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