Friday, January 27, 2012

Change of Seasons

Violinist Aisslinn Nosky
Last weekend's Handel and Haydn concerts may have been devoted to The Four Seasons, but there was only one major change of musical season during the program - the shift from one sensibility (Harry Christophers') to another (violinist Aisslinn Nosky's) that occurred after intermission, when the concert moved from several pieces by Handel, Corelli and John Christian Bach to Vivaldi's famously seasonal quartet of concerti.

The first half was a small miracle; the second half - well, it was interesting, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense.  It was interesting; Handel and Haydn seemed determined to deliver something that was definitely not your father's Four Seasons - and so swung for the bleachers in all kinds of ways; whether the resulting performance cohered or not I'd say is an open question; but I was certainly held the whole time.

But first, the luminous half, when the stripped-down orchestra delivered one ravishing reading after another.  Christophers had his string section play standing up, the better to conjure the buoyancy of dance, but always kept the resulting rhythmic power under delicate, attentive control.   The pieces rocked, most definitely, but were also colored with a mature sophistication.  Handel's Overture to "Agrippina," for instance - which we just heard a year ago at Boston Lyric Opera, on modern instruments - here sounded far more evocative than it had then; its majesty seemed almost wounded, and shot through with melancholy; it seemed to be calling to us from some lost, ancient age (which it was).

Likewise the performances of two of Corelli's concerti (both from Op. 6, Nos. 3 and 4) were gorgeously rendered, utterly transparent and always exquisitely detailed.  In contrast, J.C. Bach's forceful Symphony in G minor felt like a whirlwind - the tumbling first movement was so powerful, in fact, it drew a round of spontaneous applause at its finish.

The same energy powered The Four Seasons, but this time felt unfettered by any sense of shaping control.  Nosky is a marvel, and obviously a showman (her magenta 'do and tuxedo-tails tell you as much), but Christophers here seemed to simply hand over the artistic reins to her much of the time, and I'm afraid she doesn't yet know how to build an interpretation from her instincts.  They're great, daredevil instincts, to be sure; this was a Four Seasons which was unafraid to revel in the work's dissonance, and in which Vivaldi's summery suspensions (as well as Nosky's own rather meandering cadenzas) sometimes seemed to hang in the air like a blazing haze.  Likewise the more rollicking sections were sped up to a gallop and beyond - indeed, sometimes Nosky made promises of speed she couldn't quite keep, at least not with perfect intonation.  And everywhere she and the other players threw themselves into their bowing with full-body abandon; I have expected Nosky to smash her instrument over somebody's head at the climax of "Winter."

So I'll say this much - this was one of the most "extreme" version of The Four Seasons I've ever encountered.  But the same artistic questions dogged this performance as sank the shenanigans of Red Priest up on the North Shore this summer: gonzo alone doesn't amount to an interpretation.  To be fair, Nosky wasn't just pursuing technical glory - she was pushing individual musical ideas to their limits; this wasn't just Red Priest-style show-boating.  And perhaps The Four Seasons only suffered in comparison with the luminous playing that had immediately preceded it.  But then Harry Christophers is just a little more seasoned, isn't he (sorry).  Give Nosky time, and I think we can expect wonders from her, too.

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