City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 22 February 2012
The program will be performed in Melbourne on 26 February, and again in Sydney from 29 February until 3 March. 29 February’s concert to be broadcast live on ABC Classic FM (8 PM)
Vivaldi – Ciaccona form Concerto for Strings in C major RV 114
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in G minor RV 576
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in F major RV 572 Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in D major RV 562a
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in F major RV 574 and RV 571
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in D major RV 564
Vivaldi – Concerto for several instruments in G minor RV 577
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Paul Dyer – artistic director and harpsichord
Federico Guglielmo – guest director and baroque violin
For a long time I was put off Vivaldi by the incessant repetitions of the Four Seasons on the local classical radio station. This was of course unfair, but it can be tricky to find performances of many of his other several hundred pieces (not least in Venice itself), and in fact the frequently encountered way of playing Vivaldi, with a certain edge, a forthright, frenetic sort of energy, which may display the technical virtuosity to maximum effect, is unfair too. Australian Brandenburg Orchestra artistic director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer and guest violinist and director Federico Guglielmo have constructed a program which is remarkably varied — indeed to present a program devoted to a single composer (or an exhibition devoted to a single artist) only really works with and artistic personality capable of a varied outlook lest we become oppressed by the artist’s obsessions. Some of these concerti have not been published and clearly the two musicians have put much deep thought and research into their performance. Here is a Vivaldi with subtlety of expression, which also puts to good use all of this orchestra’s skill across the instruments without showing off. All the concerti are “for several instruments” with some instruments re-apearing as soloists with a consistent personality and characteristically written parts, but with something quite different to say in each concerto. The program is carefully arranged in a kind of cycle, giving the sense of music taking us on a journey.
Paul Dyer has done very well to gather this orchestra of period instrument players. He has a skeleton crew from Sydney which is smaller than Bach’s minimum orchestra, but here (as in many of their concerts) brings in musicians from right across Oceania, from Auckland to Perth, and it is no small feat just to get them all together for so many concerts, let alone adequate rehearsal time. One thing that would be nice to see, though, is each player’s instrument listed in the program, as the Orchestra of the Antipodes does in the Pinchgut Opera programs. The musicians also show a rapport with Guglielmo, perhaps going back to his visit two years ago, but all seemed on the same wavelength to bring about Guglielmo’s interpretation of Vivaldi, adapting themselves willingly to his style, which isn’t so very different to begin with.
The program opened with a Ciaccona from a concerto for strings, in C Major. The piece had verve enough to make a cheerful, festive opening, but with complexity too, without in anyway the hollowness of showmanship. From there the music became rather darker and more poignant with the G minor concerto for violin, recorders and oboes. The G minor key suits very well the rather stridently morose recorders while the violin (Guglielmo) and oboes (principally Kirsten Barry) conversed more intensely, and personally, with some impossibly fast oboe playing. This piece showed the consoling side of Vivaldi which one doesn’t often get to hear, thanks in part to his varied creation for each instrument always very fitting to each instrument and Guglielmo’s extremely expressive playing, his bow seeming to move and press with the control of a fine singer’s voice. The orchestra was responsive to this deep expression, tending to stress articulately the expressive rhythm.
The following concerto, shifting to F major, “Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio” for violin, cello, flutes, oboes and harpsichord brings contrasting strangeness. The concept is under the sea, not so much as depiction or program, but as a compositional technique. A set of proverbial blank staffs present infinite possibilities to a composer; some narrowing of these possibilities by setting a rule should not be begrudged, whether a sonata form, or Serialism, or a self-imposed theme with a set of sounds. Here Vivaldi has the violin and flute play in the deepest notes they can while the cello and plays as high as it can, i.e. he turns orchestra upside down in the score. Rather than making a meal or a gimmick of this, Vivaldi merely seems to set one or two themes this way, instead taking advantage experimentally of the resulting unfamiliar timbres of instruments straining their ranges and their less crisp attack in these ranges. He uses these macerated attacks like liquid consonants, rather like Shakespeare might use water imagery through a play to help bind it. The large number, range and diversity of the solo instruments transports us to a lush, strange world distant from his usual concerti but the expression of the music is in a way still very warm and human. Such a diversity of soloists playing at an equal high level is a treat to hear.
The D major concerto brings a stronger sun. The color is more orchestral and wide, with timpani and horn soloists as well as the violin and oboe. Guglielmo’s second-nature playing of the extraordinary solos showed also great delicacy, a filigree sort of virtuosity one doesn’t often hear.
Next, after the interval, Guglielmo combines the first movement of RV 574 for violin and trombon da caccia with the last two movements of RV 571 for horns and also cello, with horns used throughout, in the fine Baroque tradition of using what you have available. The horns here are used in a very different way from the previous concerto, though there is still the faint outdoors connotation. Jamie Hey’s quick and lively and Anthea Cotee’s deep and warm playing complemented the horns extremely well.
The D major RV 564 is written for two violins and two cellos. The pairs begin by seeming to chase one another in short fast notes, almost squirrel-like, though chase does not fully describe it. Later they interweave pairwise in a more intricate, more airy, gentle way though no less playfully, though no less seriously either.
The concert finished more shadowy, with a return of G minor and the recorder soloists with also oboe, bassoon and violin. Kirsten Barry seemed to warm into the concert by this point and her solos were very moving and strongly-felt, though no less impossible! as indeed all the soloists were, a very rich music as they played it and indeed as Vivaldi no doubt intended it. With the rich darkness of the G minor though was a wonderful leaping rhythm in the last movement, in which the orchestra’s precision manifested itself in a buoyant lightness, Paul Dyer bouncing on his bench in directing the continuo.
Guglielmo would play a cadenza, starting slowly, with a spread of notes and then a long pause of total silence, strings of softly stroked notes moving through amazing harmonic modulations before finishing the second half of the cadenza with impossibly fast virtuosity. He uses the full dynamic range of his violin, helped by the favorable acoustics of the hall (though perhaps a tad too high-ceilinged to be ideal), becoming softer than I’ve heard a violin while retaining a interesting timbre. He took the strings of the orchestra through this vast dynamic range, never “for effect” but as seemed called for by Vivaldi. His virtuosity also manifests itself in a range of bowing technique which exploits the vocal possibilities of his instrument (a 1690 Milanese Giovanni Battista Grancino) to exploit the possibilities of interpretation of these substantial Vivaldi concerti. He has a gentleness, a soft-heartedness of approach and general style, warm and down to earth in a contemplative way which brings out the ethereal qualities of the music all the better. It was sad when the concert ended. His encores were very generous: first the slow movement of a concerto Vivaldi dedicated to his beloved and student Anna Maria, was very moving, with a careful slow tempo, despite being a single movement, and his second encore was a solo piece he wrote himself which he called “Canzone dei gondolieri”, a bittersweet sort of unsentimental piece with a somewhat modern flavor.