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Les Violons du Roy in Charm City

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Mr. Corelli in London, M. Steger, English Concert, L. Cummings

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Handel, Water Music, Les Violons du Roy, B. Labadie
Our last chance to hear Les Violons du Roy in the area was in 2005, so we were not going to miss the chance to hear the Canadian early music group when they played on Sunday afternoon at Baltimore's Shriver Hall. The group plays on modern instruments, so they produce a plush sound, but with reproductions of 18th-century bows that changes the nature and precision of the attack, which produces a refined unity in spite of relatively small numbers of players. While music director Bernard Labadie does favor the crisp, fleet approach to Allegro movements, typical of historically informed performance (HIP) conductors, he also approaches the music with considerable liberty of phrasing, heard in the Largo introduction to Handel's B♭ major concerto grosso (op. 6/7, "Hornpipe"), a piece last heard from the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2009. Placement of the archlutenist, Sylvain Bergeron, in the front row, helped his decorations of the exquisitely soft third movement come to the fore. Labadie guided the players through expertly pointed phrases in the the fast movements, especially the folksy vigor of the "Hornpipe" last movement, where harpsichordist Richard Paré, the instrument wisely placed at the back to reduce its tendency to dominate, shone in his inventive continuo realization.

Recorder player Maurice Steger lived up to his reputation as a daredevil virtuoso in a Telemann suite (A minor, TWV 55:a2), featuring alto recorder, that is well worth a listen. Steger was up to all of the composer's many virtuosic challenges, giving clean, precise articulation to the many cascading runs, ear-piercing clarity on the high notes, and astounding breath support and finger work. The only deficit, if it should even be called that, is the lack of a truly luxurious legato, heard in the somewhat impatiently rendered Largo movement. Much the same effect was produced by an inferior piece of music, Giuseppe Sammartini's F major concerto for soprano recorder. The soloist dazzled in many sparkling runs, and the archlute had another pleasing turn decorating empty spaces in the middle movement, but it was not a piece that warranted its resurrection.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Les Violons du Roy, recorder soloist Maurice Steger light up Shriver Hall (Baltimore Sun, January 30)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, Maurice Steger, Violons du Roy offer thrilling baroque playing at Rackham (Ann, January 29)
Of greater interest on the second half were two pieces drawn from Steger's recent album, a blockbuster, of music by Arcangelo Corelli, adapted and made even more brilliant by his student, Francesco Geminiani, who packaged many of Corelli's works for English audiences during his time in London. Although Steger made that disc with a different ensemble, the English Concert, Les Violons du Roy took Geminiani's version of Corelli's famous variations on the Follia tune and ran with it, with lead violinist Nicole Trotier and the other musicians each getting virtuosic moments in the spotlight. The rhythmic verve of this performance was spirited and ferocious, especially in the fastest sections, taking on the spirit of dances like the fandango. Steger returned for a final solo turn in Geminiani's amped-up version of a Corelli recorder concerto (op. 5, no. 10), incorporating extremely ornate ornamentation dreamed up by leading recorder virtuosos in London at the time. Such written-out embellishments are an invaluable resource for HIP musicians, giving precious evidence of just how florid the process of ornamentation could be. As rewarding as the recording is to listen, to hear that level of virtuosity in live performance was an overwhelming experience.

The next Shriver Hall event is a free concert by 15-year-old pianist George Li, at the Baltimore Museum of Art (February 11, 3 pm).

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