By Jacob Stockinger
For several decades now, the gold standard of early music, period-instrument music has been located in Western Europe, with many groups established in Great Britain and Germany, although France, Italy and the Netherlands have also produced their share.
Just some of the big names that come to mind are the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Musica Antiqua Koln, Concentus Musicus of Vienna, La Petite Bande, the English Baroque Soloists and Il Giardino Armonico.
But increasingly America has joined the trend. Major music schools now offer degree programs and majors in early music and period instruments. Early music festivals regularly take place around the country, including here in Madison.
And the U.S. increasingly has some larger early music groups as well as smaller, very accomplished ensembles such as Chicago’s Newberry Consort and Piffaro, which often take part in the Madison Early Music Festival each summer.
There are more, to be sure.
But the one group, now 30 years old, that seems most on the ascendant is the Phiharmonia Baroque Orchestra (below top), which is based in San Francisco and performs around the Bay area. It has been led for 25 years by veteran conductor Nicholas McGegan (below bottom), one of the world acclaimed pioneers of historically informed performances.
As has happened with many famous performing arts organizations large and small, the state of the recording industry has led the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra to produce its own recordings.
The results are very good. They have now released several CDs and I am convinced from listening to them that the group can stand beside the best of their European counterparts. True, the Boston Baroque may also be a competitor. But so far, I give the edge to the Philharmonia Baroque, which recently received rave reviews for its performance of Haydn’s ‘The Creation”in San Francisco and Handel‘s “Messiah” at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Take a look at the orchestra’s home website and you will be impressed just by the current season.
You will notice that this season even such a renowned mainstream musician as pianist Emanuel Ax (below top) is scheduled to join them in an all-Beethoven concert, when he will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 on a fortepiano. The group will also see Japanese scholar and performer Masaaki Suzuki (below bottom), who had recorded a masterful set of Bach cantatas and orchestral works. And the alcclaimed British baroque violinist Rachel Podger will join them.
Here is a link:
I have listened now to several of the more recent CDs, including the one that will be released this week, of Brahms’ two Serenades (below).
That one goes right to the top of the list – right beside the touching CD of the late singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson doing Handel arias and Berlioz’ “Les Nuits d’Ete” and the great CD that featured three Haydn symphonies, Nos. 88, 101 “The Clock” and 104 “London,” which was nominated for a 2011 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. McGegan has a clear affinity for Haydn and it shows in his recordings.
There is also an all-Vivaldi CD with the “The Four Seasons” and several other violin concertos on it. I am less fond of that CD, but it has to do more with the repertoire than with the quality of the performances.
Another recording that is a winner and shows a future path for the group is of the Handel opera “Atalanta.” Vocalists and instrumentalists alike do the ensemble proud in an area — the rediscovery of Handel operas — that has become a major event.
But there are many more if you go to their website and click on SHOP, you will find a complete listing of recordings of Arne, Corelli, Haydn, Handel, Purcell and many other composers – although, surprisingly, no J.S. Bach and just a little Mozart and Beethoven!
Here is a direct link to the catalogue, current and back reissues, of CDs:
In any case, I hope the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra one day comes to the Madison area on tour. In the meantime I intend to listen to its recordings and follow its career as it continues to pick up speed and put American early musicians on par reputation-wise with their more famous, but not necessarily better, European counterparts.