Thursday, February 9, 2012

Europa Galante at Boston Early Music Festival

By now it's obvious that period performance has begun to fracture into different national schools. And if last Sunday's concert by Europa Galante at the Boston Early Music Festival was any indication, the Italian school is all about sweet, stylish warmth. Led by the brilliant violinist Fabio Biondi (above, looking almost too suave), the string ensemble (plus harpsichord) sailed through a program dubbed "New Faces and Old" which left the audience perhaps unruffled, but also beaming with pleasure.

The "old" faces on offer I suppose were Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Haydn; the "new" ones were Antonio Brioschi and Angelo Maria Scaccia, both pretty obscure to the non-specialist.  Of these, the Scaccia piece - a violin concerto in E-flat major - was by far the superior, as it boasted a plaintively intriguing (and richly ornamented) Adagio.  The brisk Brioschi was charming and lively, and punctuated by lightly descending arpeggios, but to be perfectly honest, at this point I can barely remember it; it tasted delicious going down, but now it's gone.

Europa Galante is capable of quite more than that, to be sure (although sometimes it did seem that empty musical calories could be their default mode).  The musicians play standing up, as Handel and Haydn does now, which allows for more lilting rhythms, and a comfortably loose (but not too loose) sense of ensemble.  Biondi had a generous stage presence, but took almost all the solos - he's clearly a bit of a ham, but frankly it's pretty tasty ham, and sliced delightfully thin (his technique is impeccable, his intonation utterly secure, and his sense of musical drama is always in evidence).  Not for Biondi the lingering, intellectualized dissonances and occasional rasps of the English style - his Vivaldi, for instance, was unabashedly lyrical, almost bel canto in fact, and far more melodic than H&H's Four Seasons had been a few weeks back.  No, Europa Galante's sound is always glowing and sleek; sometimes oaky perhaps, but never dry.

The ensemble did seem to have a something of an Achilles' heel in harpsichordist Paola Poncet, who played cleanly enough, but plinkingly - indeed, she was all but overshadowed by Biondi in Haydn's complicated Concerto for Violin and Harpsichord in F Major.  The other duet on the program was far stronger - violinist Andrea Rognoni joined Biondi for a ravishing reading of Bach's Double Violin Concerto; indeed, this time it was the ensemble's leader who seemed to occasionally be standing in the shade.

The concert closed with a suite from Handel's Rodrigo (again, we'd heard the overture to this at H&H two weeks ago, just as we'd heard the Bach Double Violin Concerto at Boston Baroque before that).  The suite is a charming series of dance-based movements (a gigue, a menuet, even a "matelot") which only perhaps achieves true distinction in its languid Sarabande and its finale, a richly embroidered Passacaille.

Of course there was a standing ovation, and of course there was an encore - Biondi joked that he had something up his sleeve "for winter," but it turned out to be the "storm scene" from the "Summer" concerto of The Four Seasons.  Again his intuitive feel for drama came to the fore, however, and the gales of Vivaldi's tempest blew with convincingly windy rhythms.  It was a delightful capstone to a delightful concert; those who doubt period performance can be utterly audience-pleasing would do well to catch Europa Galante at their next Boston outing.

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