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Winds of the Serenissima: Ensemble Zefiro at Boston Early Music Festival


We tend to associate Antonio Vivaldi with concerted music for strings, but the Venetian composer and his contemporaries also wrote numerous sonatas featuring solo wind instruments. In their first appearance at the Boston Early Music Festival on Monday evening, June 8th at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Ensemble Zefiro demonstrated just how captivating the sound of Baroque double-reed instruments can be. In addition to its founder and artistic director, oboist Alfredo Bernardini, the group consists of the Grazzi brothers Paolo (oboe) and Alberto (bassoon), with basso continuo supplied by Lorenz Duftschmid, violone (Baroque double bass) and Luca Guglielmi playing harpsichord and a small chamber organ. In the absence of Evangelina Mascardi, lutanist and BEMF Artistic Co-Director Paul O’Dette joined the continuo group on the theorbo, a large lute with additional bass strings.

The program was designed to demonstrate the virtuosity and expressive skills of each of the players. The opening piece, a sonata for two oboes and bassoon with basso continuo by Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco, who was born in Verona but spent many years in the Low Countries and France, concluded with a lively French-style Ciaccona vivace in which the players competed with one another in improvisatory virtuosic riffs on a repeated dance bass pattern. In the Vivaldi sonata for oboe and basso continuo that followed, oboist Paolo Grazzi played with just the right amount of rubato in the largo movements and introduced skillful ornamentation in repeated sections, taking our breath away with a rollicking final Allegro.

In 1703 Antonio Vivaldi was appointed maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four institutions in Venice founded to house and educate illegitimate children, where talented girls received a musical education and often became virtuoso performers. A year later Vivaldi’s salary was increased in consideration of his teaching the viole all’inglese, a family of bowed instruments with sympathetic strings. Lorenz Duftschmid performed Vivaldi’s Sonata in E minor for Viola Inglese and Continuo on what looked like a large viola da gamba, with six strings, the high bridge and underhand bowing technique allowing for very fluid and expressive playing that balanced beautifully with the organ and theorbo continuo.

Echo effects were all the rage from the earliest years of the Baroque. The Zefiro players made the most of the expressive and even comic aspects of this conceit in the Echo Sonata for two oboes, bassoon, and continuo by Antonio Lotti, best known as organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s and as a composer of sacred music and operas. After the other players had assembled on stage, Alfredo Bernardini arrived, looked around for his music in bafflement, and then disappeared, only to be heard offstage echoing the first oboe and/or the bassoon in varying combinations, with the continuo instruments dropping out entirely for the Adagio.

Giovanni Benedetto Piatti may have been born in Venice, but made his career in Germany as a court composer and virtuoso performer on several instruments. Baroque trio sonatas were typically composed for two treble instruments and basso continuo, but Piatti wrote 21 trios for violin, cello, and basso continuo. Performed on oboe and bassoon, with organ, theorbo, and violone continuo, his Trio in C minor gave equal importance to the two soloists, the bassoon often taking the lead in thematic passages. The two soloists outdid one another in tastefully ornamenting the repetitions of binary movements.

Baldassare Galuppi enjoyed a highly successful international career as a composer of opera buffa and as a keyboard virtuoso. Echoes of C.P.E. Bach and of Domenico Scarlatti could be heard in his two-movement sonata played with sensitivity and flourish by Luca Guglielmi on a beautiful double-manual harpsichord built by D. Jacques Way after the Henri Hemsch instrument in the Museum of Fine Arts collection. Vivaldi’s Sonata in C major for two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo was almost orchestral in its contrast of tutti and solo effects, with lively duets for each of the oboes and bassoon. A new tone color was introduced in the Largo, in which both oboes were stopped. The enthusiastic applause was rewarded with an encore “Aria” by dall’Abaco, the composer who opened the program. This was a series of ever-more elaborate variations on a ground bass, in which all the players participated.

Virtuosic yet flexible and expressive, Ensemble Zefiro’s playing is just the opposite of the mechanical and repetitive delivery one still hears all too often in performances of Vivaldi and contemporaries. We owe a vote of thanks to the BEMF organizers for bringing us this brilliant ensemble and their well chosen program.

Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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