Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vivid Vivaldi from Fishman, Handel and Haydn

Cellist Guy Fishman - photo: Stu Rosner

I was fortunate to be invited to a musical soirée given by players of the Handel and Haydn Society recently at the Museum of Fine Arts (well, perhaps not so recently - it was almost two weeks ago!). The MFA's Remis Auditorium is not, perhaps, an ideal setting for musical performance, but to be fair, it's not burdened with quite as dry an acoustic as you might expect for a white modernist box - and at any rate the musicians brought such enthusiasm to their playing that the hall seemed to warm slightly as the performance progressed.

The program was built around four concerti for violoncello by Antonio Vivaldi (one of the earliest composers to take the cello seriously) and so often showcased Guy Fishman (above), a mainstay on period cello at Handel & Haydn.  But the performance rarely felt like a star vehicle - indeed, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie in the air throughout. It opened sans Fishman's presence, in fact, in a rousing (if slightly loose) rendition of Francesco Durante's Concerto for strings and basso continuo in A major.  Here H&H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, she of the fiery locks and (even more) fiery bow, held center stage, and the spry leap of the strings under her implicit baton brought a round of applause from the gallery after just the first movement.

The ensemble broke from Vivaldi only one other time, to play Tomaso Albinoni's Sinfonia for strings and basso continuo in G major. Both Durante and Albinoni are roughly of the same time and place as the "Red Priest" of Venice (Durante's base was Naples, though), so together these works gave some sense of frame to the program. The Durante was spirited, but variable (although its Largo hinted at limpid depths); by comparison the Albinoni was more coherent - perhaps more coherent than much of Vivaldi, in fact; its Adagio was stately and affecting, and its Allegro boasted the sweetest violin duet of the concert.

Elsewhere the cello was in the spotlight. Vivaldi wrote more than two dozen works for the instrument (out of a total of more than 500 concerti). Most of these were composed during his famous tenure as the Ospedale della Pietà, a charitable institution for orphaned and illegitimate children (remember, Venice was a port city). Some of these young women - only the girls were taught music - must have been talented indeed, for Vivaldi's writing for the cello is often incredibly demanding; the Concerto in A minor (RV 418), for instance, opens with passagework that's almost incredibly fleet. Clearly even if the violoncello was only just coming into its own in the eighteenth century, Vivaldi was determined to push it to his usual standards of bravura.

Fishman sailed through these startling sprints to the upper registers of the instrument, however, and then brought a rich, sadly singing tone to the Concerto in C minor (RV 401), which was probably the most consistently melancholic work on the program, and featured a tender duet between Fishman and archlutenist Paula Chateauneuf (who was only slightly taller than her instrument). After this poignant interlude, the performance concluded with a bang - the Concerto in G major (RV 413), which boasts more breathless passagework, the brief appearance of one of Vivaldi's most famous themes, and a grand flourish at the end. Which sent the audience out into the start of another snowstorm in just the right spirit to do battle with this coldest of the four seasons.

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