Back when I felt entitled to have an opinion about this sort of thing, I thought Frans Brüggen to be the best recorder player in the world. Perhaps better, the only one worth taking seriously as a musician, rather than merely a master of technique. I don't recall that I ever saw him live but I had a stack of his records (i.e., LPs). His style was absolutely distinctive: I don't know anyone else whose playing is so inward, almost as if he didn't know that (or care whether) there was anyone else in earshot.
At the time--this would have been the 70s--I thought he must be a specialized taste: an obscure instrument, normally reserved for kindergarten students, from a small country, seemingly indifferent to his public. But it seems like I needn't have bothered: it seems that Brüggen has always been a force to conjure with on his own turf, not merely as a performer but also as a conductor. The "Orchestra of the 18th Century," which he co-founded in 1981, has built itself an honorable place in its distinctive repertoire.
I actually wasn't thinking of much of this when I bought tickets for a performance here this afternoon at Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I mean, who knew that "Orkest van de Achttiende Eeuw" meant "Orchestra of the 18th Century," and that the man himself would take the chair.
So, a special occasion, dampened by the observation that he looks frighteningly frail. If I count right he is just 76 and that's not old, now is it? He was always slender; now he is more slender. He sat down to conduct. He left the congratulatory bouquet on the stage, as if he couldn't coordinate the departure of both the flowers and himself.
But there was nothing wrong with his conducting, which seemed has disciplined and arresting as ever. And if Brüggen is nearing the end of his career, he offered as pendant a woman who seems to be somewhere near the apex of hers. That would be Mary-Ellen Nesi, a Cypro-Canadian mezzo whose plummy mezzo carried off a Telemann cantata with such conviction you pretty much forgot it was Telemann.
Afterthought: A glance at the Orchestra's website convinces me I must be getting carried away here. They seem to have a full concert card and a recording program--everything you would expect from musicians at the top of their game. I don't know, maybe there are other conductors; maybe he has a clone. But is it such a big deal if he can't pick up the flowers?