Forget the powdered wigs and stuffed shirts. Friday night at Jordan Hall members of the Handel and Haydn Society presented the best argument for historically informed performances to be heard in a while. At the harpsichord Ian Watson led soloists drawn from the principal chairs of the orchestra in “Vivaldi Virtuosi,” Italian and Italian inspired concerti and concerti grossi that showed the depth of the ensemble’s bench. In a group of this size (4 firsts, 4 seconds, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 1 bass) there is nowhere to hide, and no need. Each person on the stage could be a soloist, and often was.
There is something about baroque music that lends itself to joy. Whether it is the upbeat tempi, the bouncy rhythms, or the fact that much of the music derives from dance forms, even the minor movements don’t sound that sad, though they can be divinely profound at times.
H & H is particularly blessed in its concertmaster, the supremely talented Aisslinn Nosky. With a shock of spiky red hair and the sexy athleticism of a rock star, she has chops that Eric Clapton would wish for on a good day. She can play, and play is the operative word. She seems to embody the humor, the flights of fancy, and the whimsy that these composers wished to bring to their music. Her attitude is infectious and translates to her colleagues as well as the audience.
Of the music itself, Watson summed it up very well in the introduction to one of the pieces, a substitution on the program. “Some of the movements are quick, some are slow. Overall it’s a nice piece.” For anyone unfamiliar with the warmer, softer sound of gut strings and period-style instruments, the furioso bowing of the ensemble seems to belie the level of sound…until one is drawn in, as if to another time and space, and the exquisite pianissimos and powerful fortes make their own sense.
First on the program was Concerto Grosso No. 6 in D Major after Scarlatti by Charles Avison (1709-1770). The first two movements were so thrilling that the audience broke into applause after the Con furia as well as at the end of the work. Next was Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor, RV531 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), which featured the fine playing of principal cellist Guy Fishman and his stand partner, Sarah Freiberg. The two instruments had two rather different tones, but technically both players were well matched.
In Concerto No. 5 in A Major by Francesco Durante (1684-1755), the final movement used some spicato bowing which seemed almost col legno (playing with the wood of the bow). Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, RV 580 by Vivaldi, gave the first stands of both violin sections to many moments shine. After intermission Introduttione in D Major, Op. 4 No. 5 by Pietro Locatelli (1659-1764) showcased the viola section. The Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in A major, Op. 2, No. 2, RV 31 by Vivaldi, was a substitution for a work by Torelli. The last movement, Allegro, was particularly saucy. Sinfonia Il coro delle Muse, RV 149 by Vivaldi, was a strong work, and was the only piece on the program which used pizzicato, a nice change in color. Finally Concerto Grosso in D Minor, La Follia by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) featured a theme and variations based on one of the oldest chord progressions and allowed the whole ensemble to show off.
Vivaldi was born in and most closely associated with Venice, where he taught in the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls where he wrote many of his most famous works including The Four Seasons for the all female ensemble (an interesting aside that the orchestra on stage was nearly all female). Pietro
Locatelli was born in Italy but later moved to Amsterdam; British composer Charles Avison never lived in Italy but based his twelve concerti grossi on music by the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti; Francesco Geminiani was born in Italy but spent much of his later life in London and may have taught Charles Avison; Francesco Durante was Neapolitan and spent time in Austria. So the variety of composers and compositions showed the genius of Vivaldi and his contemporaries and their wide influence.
This was not a dry exercise in musical correctness. It was vibrant, colorful, and full of friendly camaraderie and was all one can hope for in an evening of musical entertainment. H and H should be proud.