Sunday, April 14, 2013

Variations on Vivaldi at H&H

Ian Watson at the keyboard in a previous Handel and Haydn performance.

As the old joke goes, Vivaldi didn't write five hundred concertos, he wrote one concerto five hundred times.  Okay, not entirely fair - but in a nutshell, that's the problem with many a program devoted to the oeuvre of the "Red Priest" (the red-headed Vivaldi's vivid nickname) who may have contributed more to this particular musical form than any other composer; the works are always wonderful at first, but by the end of the performance a sense of relentless similarity inevitably sets in.

Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society largely dodged that problem, however, with its "Vivaldi Virtuosi," a cannily curated concert that contrasted works by the "Prete Rosso" with lesser-known lights of his era - and at the finale, threw aside the early concerto's "fast-slow-fast" regimentation entirely for a beautifully integrated set of variations by Francesco Geminiani on the familiar theme of "La Follia."

The concert also served as a welcome showcase for the expert H&H string section, which hasn't held the spotlight for a while.  Led by harpsichordist Ian Watson (photo above, in action), a mainstay of the Society on the keyboard, this stripped-down ensemble performed virtuosically indeed - even if there were a few hiccups here and there.

To be honest, the stately opening of the initial Concerto Grosso (by Charles Avison, after Scarlatti) proved slightly fuzzy - it wasn't until first violinist Aisslinn Nosky took over the second movement with true fury (it's even labeled "Con furia") that things suddenly caught fire.  And it seemed whenever Nosky was in the spotlight, playfully nudging things along, the ensemble was focused and committed - indeed, sometimes she seemed to be almost acting the role of co-conductor, and later her influence likewise seemed to simultaneously support and challenge the three soloists who joined her (Christina Day Martinson, Abigail Karr and Susanna Ogata) for V's Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins.

The Avison was followed by Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor, and one soon got a sense of the shape of the program: Vivaldi would serve as the familiar, pulsing spine, from which the other composers (Durante, Locatelli, and Geminiani) would branch in intriguing variations.  Actually, the double-cello concerto more than pulsed, it all but thrusted, and soloists Guy Fishman and Sarah Freiberg, though their instruments sang in quite different timbres, gave it their all, and conjured a beguiling, if dark, duet (although Fishman seemed visibly displeased with a glitch or two in his own performance early on).

The mood immediately brightened with the buoyant Concerto V in A Major from Francesco Durante, which opened with a spritzily lyrical Presto, followed by an almost eerily misty Largo.  This only made me want to hear more from Durante - indeed, as concerto tumbled after concerto, I began to find myself looking forward to the non-Vivaldi items on the program; they were generally fresher and more eccentric than the pieces from the master's assembly line (Pietro Locatelli's Introduttione in D Major, for instance, came teasingly close to the edge of dissonance).  One exception to this general rule was the Red Priest's own seemingly improvised Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo, a curiosity marked by brief movements and a free lyricism, which was expertly played by Nosky, Fishman, and Watson (whose harpsichord for once wasn't swallowed by the surrounding texture).  Its quirky, offhand appeal was amusingly summed up by Watson's ad lib to the audience, "The first part sounds made up.  Then there's a quick bit, followed by a slow bit, then another quick bit."

Of course there were other marvelous moments from Vivaldi; in his Sinfonia Il coro dell Muse, for instance, the whole string section seems to be tiptoeing behind the soloist in a delightfully long stretch of pizzicato, and the concluding Allegro wraps with an intriguing sense of anticlimax.   Still, the sense of variations on a steady theme was only broken by Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in D Minor, La Follia, which is itself (ironically enough) a set of variations, but so densely interwoven that it coheres as a gripping mood piece.  It's widely heralded as Geminiani's best work, and it may well have been the best work on this entire program.  Nosky was once more at her muscular best, and the ensemble moved as if one; folly or not, it ended the concert on a exciting high note.

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