Imagine attending one of the performances of the Concert Spirituel in "late-baroque" France. What would that sound like? Look like? The music better have been theatrical, perhaps elements of surprise would find their way into the music written for lush, colorful ensembles, with the most tender of slow sections, feisty, loud ritornellos, and above all, the expertise of the best players coming out in elements such as concertino duets or à la minute ornamentation. Enter one of Jordi Savall's latest recordings, Le Concert Spirtiuel, featuring Le Concert des Nations, featuring Savall on his instrument, the viola da gamba, and violin luminaries Enrico Onfori and Riccardo Minasi. Featured in this recording are works by Corelli, Telemann, and Rameau, with color coming from percussion (Rameau), flutes, and in the A minor concerto for recorder and gamba, Pierre Hamon on recorder. Corelli, op. 6, no. 4: This, my friends, is the brightest gem on the recording, played "the way Corelli ought to be played." We have, for once, true concertato soloists, in Enrico Onofri and Riccardo Minasi. They rise above the texture, offering excitement to the listener in their phrasing, articulation, and above all, the spirit of their playing. I only wish these two would join forces again with Savall to record all of Corelli's sixth opus, as they really "get" the point behind these pieces. And I must confess, even the adagios are well-worth savoring, as I sometimes hit the "next track" button in some recordings as I find these slower movements left to the tyranny of boredom in other hands. Savall's direction and the creative capacity of these players make the entire work delicious listening. I compare this to another recording, of Europa Galante on naïve, under Fabio Biondi. He certainly made a statement with his reading (one much aligned with their later recording on Virgin Veritas of the Vivaldi third opus). But where Biondi emerges from the texture of strings as a leading voice, here with Savall, the violinists are more partners in crime. I adore the tone and the rhythmic experiments Biondi is well-known for, but here, the sound and spirit is simply more authentic. We deserve more Corelli from these masters. Now, listen with headphones. Because no matter the artistry of the musicians, I can't ignore the quality of this recording. The ending of the Corelli concerto is a real tour-de-force, it's energy in sound, and then... boom, there's this plume of sound, reverb on steroids. Where was this recorded? And why was this "echo" (I know it's not real echo, but that's what many might call it) there, and sounding like that? It almost sounds phony, because it's presence in other parts of the recording seem absent. We next move on to Telemann's Suite in D, TWV 55:D6. We can compare this to one of the more recent releases by Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua, Köln. I might wager to say that Jordi Savall is a stronger gamba player than Jaap ter Linden (MAK), but the philosophy behind the two sets of recording engineers between these recordings couldn't be more different. I am listening via a 256kbit MP3 from Amazon; but the original recording was presented in Super AudioCD with "multichannel" sound. This conversion, perhaps, is what is at fault. But with good headphones, Savall is in your head, perhaps even behind your head, while the rest of the ensemble is a good ways off. This over-emphasis of the gamba in the recording highlight's Savall's artistry, and the practically rustic nature of his instrument. Needless to say, the balance here is off. We get a clear, robust picture of Savall's playing, but almost everything else in the ensemble is blurry and subdued. There is a sumptuous nature to the sound of both soloist and ensemble, with a dark quality to this sound. But on repeated listenings, something is off in the recorded balance. I should note in the movement titled "La Trompette," Savall speeds ahead on a repeat, which is great fun, and likely is something we'd only hear when the soloist is also the director! The concerto by Telemann, TWV 52:a1 is well-known, a double-concerto for recorder and gamba. Here the ensemble is better represented sonically in the recording, with more detail, but the two soloists with their clarity in sound and up-front position in the image of sound is a bit off. With headphones, it honestly sounds as if we are sitting in Savall's seat, in a type of binaural recording. The concerto is well-played by all parties, and I can't help but thinking there's a real authenticity to their playing, with less emphasis on technical perfection (it's there), and more emphasis on playing from the heart. There's a short little candenza-esque moment where Savall and the flauto player Pierre Hamon take a liberty of extending what's written (and this practice, often, was the norm in baroque performance), which I admire them for doing. But it ultimately is a little flat in substance, and I wish they had used the opportunity to show-off technically. Every other point about their playing demonstrates they can handle it! Telemann Suite in E minor, TWV 55:e1 is from Telemann's Tafelmusik or "Banquet Music" collection, and we can compare this to a reference recording, again by Goebel and Musica Antiqua. The suite is scored for two flutes and strings. Unlike the concerti where Savall is in the concertino, the balance in these works is more fair, although the balance between ensemble and soloists (including solo violins) is still off, where you might feel as if you're sitting in the ensemble itself, rather than the audience of an auditorium. MAK in their recording take some far-brisker tempi, and their sound is "flatter" as far as the recording goes. But their sound is cleaner, and the balance between violins and flutes puts more emphasis on the strings in the texture, which somehow sounds more realistic, thinking back to live recordings. Savall's ensemble has a richer sound to it, with more emphasis on the lower registers, and they smack around the concluding gigue with more energy than MAK put into their effort. Whatever Telemann did to infuse the French spirit into his works, he couldn't match the more authentic style found in works such as the Suite de Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Phillipe Rameau. Here, the solid playing of Telemann is augmented here with far more theatrics, and for me, Le Concert des Nations really shines here in this French repertoire. Enter percussion, enter real rustic dances, and even humor. This would make an excellent close to a concert (as it does on this recording) with flair, the color, and the toe-tapping rhythms. Rameau's suite is the second-most gleaming gem on the recording, and the issues with the recorded sound worry me less in this work. It would be rare to hear a more agile, unified violin sound, and this work (new to me - great music borrowed from Rameau's ballet-opera) is a festive ending to a real treat of a recording. I shied away from this recording because I already owned much of the music contained within; but Savall has really put together a first-rate ensemble of players in this release to re-create an ancient concert experience. It only tells me they have an obligation to record more of this music, because they play so well. If you're new to these works, then don't hesitate to buy. If you're like me and have a couple collections of Telemann, and Corelli, these guys are really good. I only wish there was more! My reservations with the recording are with the technology used in the recording. The over-emphasis of Savall in the mix is a demerit in this great recording. I'm not sure if a multi-channel recording is right when mixed down to regular 2-channel stereo. Just know you should expect to be sitting in the ensemble. It's a small detail for some, but it's a psychological one for me - I feel like I'm sitting next to the players. It's cool for awhile, then gets annoying. I had far better success enjoying this recording in a large room with speakers, but listening on headphones was simply odd. Listening on bookshelf speakers in my office is somewhere in between, strange at times, but less fatiguing than with headphones. The amount of reverb at the end of numbers also sounds off; in the end I guess I'm fonder of simpler recording techniques that place me close to the ensemble, but far enough away that I'm clearly in the audience. Exciting playing from Savall, Minasi, and Onofri. Crisp articulation from the harpsichord. Good program of pieces. More please!