The LSO Chamber Orchestra graced Milton Court joined by Giovanni Antonini. The reduced number of players was equivalent to the size of the conductor’s Kammerorchester Basel. The concert provided an excellent example of how to perform 18th-century music in appropriate style using modern forces. Vibrato was barely evident yet the resultant tone had a natural richness enhanced by the Antonini’s legato style of phrasing which enabled melodies to sound lyrical whilst retaining an admirable regularity of pulse. Other elements included subtle dynamics and antiphonal violins, a particular advantage with the sons of J. S. Bach who often write answering phrases between the two sections. I also liked the Finales following with minimal pause.
Textures were quite full during J. S. Bach’s Suite (BWV1066): the sections for wind band were phrased expressively and in the several dance movements, Antonini adopted a particular refinement by giving the first repeat more softly. It was followed by the brief but extraordinary F-major Symphony by the second of his sons: Wilhelm Friedemann. Dramatic from the outset, the opening movement has unexpected moments when long-held fermatas interrupt the music to be succeeded by a theme differing in both manner and rhythm. The form is unusual: following the standard fast-slow-fast pattern, a pair of Minuets is added; after three dramatic movements a graceful sequence is heard bearing strong similarity to Handel.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach also took a dramatic view of ‘the Symphony’. Where W. F. interrupts and dramatises by using long-held chords, C. P. E. spices faster movements with sudden pauses. The Six Symphonies (Wq182) are perhaps neglected since the scoring is only for strings; nevertheless Antonini made the first of the set a dramatic experience and was particularly thoughtful in the central Poco adagio where its strangely clipped idea is contrasted with brief tragic outbursts.
In Telemann’s delightful four-movement Recorder Concerto Antonini’s playing of the solo part was little short of spectacular in the rapid sections with florid ornaments welded into the flow with great skill. The Finale has the marking Tempo di minuet but here it surged and remarkable virtuosity was displayed. This concerto is particularly difficult because a top F-sharp is required sometimes (not achievable on the standard recorder) but Antonini employed the device of using the uppermost part of his leg to muffle the end of the instrument in order to achieve the higher note.
It was particularly interesting to hear Antonini conduct Haydn since he plans to record all his Symphonies. The harpsichord, which earlier lurked at the back of the orchestra, had been brought forward for the Telemann where its continuo contribution is important. It was something of a surprise that it was dismissed for ‘La passione’ – the admirable Universal Edition publications advocate use of a keyboard in the earlier Symphonies (just under half of the total) and the score of No.49 suggests it is required.
The performance was notable for forward momentum and there was welcome avoidance of over-expressive phrasing, such as the dramatic high-C for violins in the opening Adagio which precedes a sad falling phrase, conductors usually swell the note sentimentally but Antonini simply played it pianissimo, as written. Tempos were well chosen – the dark Minuet did not hurry and the delicate high horn-playing in the Trio was superb. The fury with which Antonini imbued the Finale showed true understanding of the dramatic nature of the music.