Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borge once defined “Baroque” as a “style that deliberately exhausts … its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.” This definition was proven at least partially apt but also joyfully surmountable by a lively all-Vivaldi evening given on January 17 in Emmanuel Church, Boston, by the highly skilled Venice Baroque Orchestra.
Antonio Vivaldi’s approach to composition was primarily gestural: waves of bristling 16th-notes; hills of terraced sequences; and forests of harmonic progressions both clever and pat, inhabited by the occasional sonic imitations of birds, storms, or shepherds. All do indeed seem to exhaust their possibilities, especially after such a program of eight concerti and three encore pieces as was heard that night.
Still, as the works featured on this concert demonstrate, there is some truly remarkable music among all those gestures. The String Concerto in B-minor (RV 168) with its achingly affected turns of phrase, or the Andante of the Sinfonia in G Major (RV 149), which slips and twists back and forth between major and minor modes like a slowly unraveling tapestry, evince skills and sensitivities that, at least at times, raise Vivaldi above the level of a mere craftsman. Add to that a solo violin part, and the results can be even more provocative: spasmodic virtuoso passages, as in the Concerto for Violin in E-minor (RV 273); or, as in the Concerto for Violin in C-Major (RV 191), jilting alternations of solo and tutti colored by bizarre textural contrasts.
The Venice Baroque Orchestra made the most of all the works they played. I always find it refreshing to hear a period ensemble that avoids the harshly percussive approach to Baroque music that seems to be in vogue. Instead, the twelve players indulged in a rich, resonant sound while still evoking the flavor of the times. Their approach to the music itself was equally impressive: they energized the quick-paced movements with bold dynamic contrasts and warmed the slow-paced movements with emotive accenting and delicate improvisations from the lute and harpsichord, all punctuated by deliciously exaggerated dramatic pauses.
Violinist Giuliano Carmignola, who joined the group as soloist for four of the eight works, added yet another level of excited energy to the music. He did fall prey to occasional slips in intonation, which were either a result of his tendency toward vibrato-less long-tones or of the cold air in the church. Nonetheless, as featured player and leader of the group when he was on stage, he delivered some engagingly sensitive and often quirky interpretations. Most inspired among these was a delightfully fitful and over-the-top performance of the Concerto for Violin in D-Major (RV 222), an effective extravagance that made fascinating an otherwise un-notable work of music.
And they seemed to be having so much fun with it all! The honest glee with which these performers played this music turned what could very easily be interpreted as musical caricature into a happy listening experience.