Mullova/Antonini, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Mullova may have gut strings on her instrument but she doesn't yet have a gut instinct for Vivaldi. In her work with Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico - as in her dish-water dinner jazz - she has mastered the idioms of a style without understanding their narrative function. Technically, Vivaldi is a cinch for a player of her facility. Musically, however, he is one of the subtlest and most demanding of composers. Thus, while admiring the tuning-fork purity of Mullova's double-stopping in the Concerto in C major (RV187), the BPM energy of her arpeggios in the Concerto for Four Violins and Cello (RV580), and the force-nine ferocity of her spiccato in the "Grosso Mogul" Concerto (RV208), I spent much of her Barbican concert with Il Giardino Armonico thinking wistfully of Fabio Biondi. Not that Biondi's bucolic improvisations would fit into Antonini's espaliered style.

Having previously complained about lazily detailed period instrument performances - such as those where "feminine endings" ill-disguise indeterminate note lengths - it feels strange to criticise Antonini for over-rehearsing. Il Giardino Armonico are an exceptionally polished and cohesive ensemble. Their leader Stefano Barneschi outshone their guest star in Sammartini's Concerto Grosso in A minor, co-principal Riccardo Minasi dazzled in the Concerto for Four Violins, while cellists Paolo Beschi and Elena Russo and bassist Giancarlo de Frenza were consistently exciting and intelligent. But there was little spontaneity or invention in this performance. Odd tutti sections in Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 6 showed what they could do when allowed to surge and ebb and breathe as a unit. Too frequently, however, they were bound by dynamic and articulation markings of infinite number and complexity.

As musical director and recorder player, Antonini's best and worst gifts are the same. In the bosky Fragonard landscape of Sammartini's Concerto in F, his plangent coulées and fluttering trills demonstrated a remarkable instinct for minute melodic nuances - an instinct somewhat over-indulged in his rambling cadenza to the Siciliano - yet revealed an equally remarkable disinterest in the workings of the bass-line. With Beschi, Russo, and de Frenza in place, it could be that Antonini is simply allowing them to get on with their job. That said, there were times when he seemed actively to discourage any expressivity from harpsichordist Riccardo Doni; preferring the platitudinous cookie-cutter broken chords of lutenist Luca Pianca. Il Giardino Armonico are a terrific band, but they should drop their guest soloist, sedate their director, and start to let their hair down.