Shortly after Judith Linsenberg founded the California-based early music group Musica Pacifica in 1990, the musicians were hailed as one of the country's premiere Baroque ensembles.
After a recent performance, a reviewer from the Washington Post declared, "Each proved to be a virtuoso!"
The group's latest release, "Fire Beneath My Fingers," features works by Italian Baroque composers who were first known as virtuosos themselves.
At the turn of the 17th century, instrumental music flourished because of great performers. Arcangelo Corelli was a virtuoso violinist who sustained his career by writing instrumental compositions for himself.
A generation of illustrious Italian instrumentalists who turned to composing followed in his footsteps.
Antonio Vivaldi was at the top of that list. He wrote not only for himself, but for the amazing young women of the Ospedale della Pieta, an institute for orphan girls where he taught. Public funds and private donations helped to turn the orphanage into a music conservatory.
Vivaldi wrote challenging concertos for these talented girls who played all types of instruments, including bassoon and recorder, which few women played at the time.
Vivaldi's Sonata in A minor for recorder and bassoon demonstrates how comfortable the composer was with these instruments. In the Largo that opens this sonata, the recorder's tone almost sounds like a pipe organ with the bassoon playing the lower pedal notes.
Judith Linsenberg plays the recorder with incredible breath control, allowing her to sing beautifully through longer phrases in the allegro. Bassoonist Michael McCraw's affable tone and technical agility blend artfully with Linsenberg's recorder.
Giuseppe Sammartini was ranked with Vivaldi as one of the best instrumentalists in 18th century Italy. Sammartini made a name for himself in London, both in the concert halls and in opera houses. He even played in Handel's orchestra. Being in an opera orchestra meant Sammartini had to double on flute and recorder.
The lyrical slow movement of his Concerto in F major for soprano recorder is reminiscent of one of Handel's opera arias. Judith Linsenberg's soprano recorder gets a serious workout in the outer movements.
Sammartini composed this concerto for London, where audiences were hooked on flashy music. Linsenberg makes the finger- and tongue-twisting passagework sound effortless.
One thing that's striking about this recording is the warm, inviting tone of the recorder. Sometimes this instrument can sound shrill, but not in the hands of Judith Linsenberg.
In the slow movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor for recorder, violin and bassoon, Linsenberg plays a beautiful, floating melody while the bassoon provides an elementary bass line.
The Baroque ensemble Musica Pacifica is clearly energized by the music it performs on its latest release, "Fire Beneath my Fingers." I picture them sitting on the edge of their seats, pushing themselves and their instruments to the limit -- all the while serving the music.
If you're looking for a dynamic Baroque recording featuring virtuoso performers at the top of their game, this is it.
Musica Pacifica -- Fire Beneath my Fingers (Dorian 90704)