Spirited, virtuosic playing by the Baroque string ensemble Europa Galante made for a brilliant concert at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, yesterday afternoon, as part of the 2011-2012 Boston Early Music Festival series. Led by violinist Fabio Biondi, the group of mostly Italian players, consisting of three first and three second violins, two violas, and two cellos, reinforced by a basso continuo group of double bass viol (violone), theorbo, and harpsichord, played with stylish verve and perfectly coordinated ensemble.
The program started off with a short and pleasing Sinfonia in D Major by Antonio Brioschi, a prolific composer of early symphonies, which became popular all over Europe in the second quarter of the 18th century. The first movement, in abbreviated sonata form, veered toward the minor in its second section before a varied reprise of the opening. In the second movement, the ingratiating triple-time melodies of the opening were punctuated by strident descending unison arpeggios. The lively finale brought Biondi’s virtuosity to the fore, supported by adroit playing by the continuo group.
In the Vivaldi violin concerto that followed (no. 3 in L’Estro Armonico), Biondi had a double function to fill as soloist and leader of the ensemble, turning his back to the audience to give the down bow for each movement and again to coordinate its close. It’s worth noting that the Europa Galante violinists and violists play standing up, which may be closer to 18th-century ensemble practice than the more recent tradition of sitting. Not only did it seem to lead to a particularly energetic and coordinated style of playing, but it also allowed Biondi to move seamlessly between his roles as virtuoso soloist executing flights of passage work and leader of the ensemble in tutti sections.
Angelo Maria Scaccia was the son of a violinist and a member of the ducal orchestra in the 1750s. His Violin Concerto in E-flat Major featured solo passages employing double stops in the first movement and a highly ornamented aria for solo violin and ensemble in the second. The third movement included a short cadenza and a surprising pianissimo ending.
Haydn’s Concerto for Violin and Harpsichord is an early work, composed before he joined the Esterhàzy household in 1766. Continuo player Paola Poncet switched roles to join Fabio Bioni as soloist, while continuing to support the orchestra in tutti sections. The two soloists were heard both separately and together, vying in virtuosity and joining in double cadenzas near the end of both the first and the second movement. In the Presto Finale, Haydn’s toying with offbeat rhythms ended in a battle of wits between the two soloists.
After the intermission we were treated to a stellar performance of an old favorite, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor in which Biondi was joined by the ensemble’s principal second violinist, Andrea Rognoni. Taking the first movement at a brisk tempo, the well-matched pair brought out its fugal intricacies while maintaining a clear sense of the overall architecture, no mean feat. In the second movement, the exquisitely interweaving aria-duet in siciliano rhythm was set off sharply against brusque chordal passages with drone accompaniment. Tasteful variations ornamented the da capo repetition of the opening. In the Finale, the two soloists sounded as one in chordal accents over a lively walking bass, concluding one of the most satisfying performances of this concerto heard in a long time.
A suite of instrumental pieces from Handel’s early opera Roderigo concluded the program. Predictably, it opened with an Overture in the French manner, with slow, dotted-rhythm, duple-time opening and concluding sections enclosing a faster triple-time fugue. In the dance movements that followed, Biondi and his ensemble had a chance to show off their stylistic mastery of the French manner. A lively Gigue and a slower Sarabande in “walking” tempo, played by the smaller concertino group of two violins, viola, and continuo, were followed by a toe-tapping Matelot (the French equivalent of a Hornpipe) for full orchestra. The next group consisted of two minuets for the concertino group enclosing an energetic Bourrée for full orchestra. In the final Passacaille, the recurrent refrain over a ground bass alternated with virtuosic solo couplets for the violin in dialogue with other instruments.
As an encore, Biondi announced “a little surprise:” the fast and furious storm Allegro movement from Vivaldi’s Winter concerto from the Four Seasons. In a tour de force of ensemble and solo playing, this was presented as a programmatic character piece, its chromatically descending harmonies as threatening as could be.