The second Friday concert in the Handel & Haydn Society’s bicentennial season took place on Halloween night at Jordan Hall. In observance of the occasion, 16 members of the Period Instrument Orchestra performed selections that included Tartini’s famous “Devil’s Trill” Sonata for violin and basso continuo. This, however, was the only sonata and the only post-Baroque work on a program that otherwise comprised somewhat earlier 18th-century Italian concertos for strings, six by Vivaldi and one by his older contemporary Torelli.
H & H’s concertmaster Aislinn Nosky led the ensemble, serving as soloist in the Tartini sonata and in four concertos for violin with strings and continuo. Two other works were group concertos or concerti grossi with multiple soloists. Also on the program was Vivaldi’s cello concerto in F, No. 410 in the catalog by Peter Ryom (now the standard listing of the composer’s output). Friday’s performance was dedicated to the memory of Boston mayor Thomas Menino, who would have appreciated the silly hats and other holiday paraphernalia worn by most of the players. The program will be repeated Sunday afternoon at 3.
Like the works with which H & H opened its season, these are mostly crowd pleasers, and like most instrumental music of their time they are heavy on formula. Yet four of the Vivaldi concertos were good enough for J. S. Bach to arrange them for keyboard instruments, and the popularity of this music gives no cause to sniff. One might have liked to hear something else by Tartini, who was a prolific and imaginative composer as well as a thoughtful writer on music, admired in his time as a theorist. But only the cello concerto could be accused of showing its composer at something less than his most inventive, even as it gives the soloist a chance to shine in some of the most challenging passages from the composer’s roughly two-dozen cello concertos.
Vivaldi of course wrote several hundred concertos for one or two violins. Those on tonight’s program were all among the relatively small number that Vivaldi chose to publish, indicating their special place in his output. Four appeared in L’estro armonico, op. 3, a set of 12 concertos issued in 1711 whose title means something like “Harmonic invention.” Vivaldi (or his Amsterdam publisher) must have meant harmony only in the generic sense of a coordinated ensemble of musicians, rather than harmony in the modern sense of chords and chord progressions. But the players reflected the title in their precise coordination and nearly flawless intonation throughout an evening of spectacular showpieces.
Guy Fishman, the orchestra’s principal cellist, joined Nosky and H& H’s assistant concertmaster Susanna Ogata as soloist in the Concerto Grosso in D Minor Op. 3, No. 11. Ogata was also violin soloist in the Double Concerto A Minor Op. 3 No. 8. Otherwise, this was Nosky’s evening. This was true even in the double concerto, where Ogata, playing the first solo part, demonstrated finesse equal to Nosky’s. Yet in the concluding movement, where Vivaldi gives the first player the hardest work, it is the second that gets to shine, playing a singing melody in several passages against the more athletic principal part.
Filling the hall to perhaps three quarters of its capacity, the audience responded with great enthusiasm. These, however, were performances that emphasized the surface qualities of the music, focusing on speed and energy in quick movements and efficiency in the slow ones. The Allegros of the two A minor pieces, including the Solo Violin Concerto Op. 3, No. 6, were especially marked by very quick tempos and an almost brutal emphasis on nearly every downbeat. This made for a rock-like intensity, but it obscured the variety of texture and scoring that both Nosky and H & H’s program annotator Teresa Neff mentioned in spoken remarks. I saw no reason for the heavy, old-fashioned allargandos used to end these concertos, unless it was to invite audience applause, in which case they succeeded.
Modern accounts of late-Baroque Italian music focus on its dazzling virtuosity, yet Bach found more in it. In fact, the quick movements of the Solo Concerto in D Major Op. 3, No. 9 received a more restrained performance than usual. Whether this reflected a considered interpretation of its character, however, was unclear; Bach chose this particularly grand piece to open his series of harpsichord arrangements. On the whole, this was Vivaldi played without much attention to the quirky “bizzaria,” alternately clever and expressive, for which he was admired in his own time.
From a technical point of view the performances were certainly outstanding. Fishman demonstrated some impressive trick bowings in the quick movements of the cello concerto and inventive, if slightly anachronistic, embellishments in the repeated sections of the Largo. The latter’s accompaniment, for continuo alone, was furnished very finely by cellist Sarah Freiberg and lutenist Daniel Swenberg, switching to guitar in this piece. Here he showed how this instrument, usually reduced to percussive rhythmic effects in modern “period” ensembles, can be played with suave elegance.
Torelli’s Concerto in E Minor Op. 8, No. 9, which closed the first half, is a remarkable work whose entirety might well be described as “erudite and eloquent,” to quote a contemporary description of the composer which Neff applied to the second movement in her program notes. Continuo harpsichordist Ian Watson provided a particularly expressive accompaniment in the slow portions of this movement; all the violins joined Nosky in unison on the repeated sections of the quick section (the original seems not to call for this variation of the scoring, although it was effective).
The final movement contains several remarkable passages in which rapid figuration for the soloist accompanies a much slower melody in the bass line. The latter was hammered out rather more insistently than necessary, but it did raise the question whether Torelli was quoting some popular tune here (if so, no one seems to have identified it). More problematic, again, was the tendency to accent almost every beat, despite the clear invitation to a broader and more eloquent type of phrasing in the long notes of the bass throughout the movement.
To open the second half of the program, Nosky prefaced the Tartini sonata by narrating its story to the audience. I wish, however, that she had used the occasion to make a case for our hearing more of Tartini’s music than this hackneyed piece. The late Brandeis University music professor Paul Brainard found Tartini’s violin sonatas sufficiently important to catalog them in his doctoral thesis, where the present one bears the designation g5. That it was inspired by a dream of the devil playing an impossibly difficult piece is likely, in fact, to contain a kernel of truth.
Accompanied by a continuo group that included Fishman as well as Watson and Swenberg, Nosky gave one of the clearest performances of the piece that I have heard, although also one of the shortest, thanks to the omission of all the repeats, which made it seem a bit of a miniature. In fact it is neither a joke nor a mere display piece, and the closing movement, containing the famous trills, has a singular design that alternates between expressive ariosos and diabolical allegros. Here the eponymous passages were done as well as I’ve heard them, played not only in tune but in time. On the other hand, the opening siciliano movement, meant to be a graceful dance, was rather heavy, lacking the sprezzatura, a sort of noble ease in the face of difficulty, that was an essential part of mid-18th-century galant style even in technically difficult music such as this.
Any such sins, however, might be forgiven in consideration of the fine performance of Vivaldi’s “Grosso Mogul” Concerto in D Major (R. 208) that concluded the evening. Why it is called the “Big Shot” concerto is unknown, but it may well have been played by Pisendel, concertmaster of the Dresden orchestra and friend of J. S. Bach. The famous harpsichord solo in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was very likely inspired by Vivaldi’s extended cadenzas or, more properly, capricci in the two quick movements. Arguably the best piece on the program, this was the best played, and the first performance I’ve heard, whether in the original version or Bach’s organ transcription, in which the capriccio in the last movement did not wear out its welcome. Nosky, showing no signs of fatigue as she neared the end of a demanding program, shaped this final solo very effectively, with imaginative timing and pacing, mixing in what I thought were some harmonics in one or two very high passages for a nice color effect.
A closing word about Neff’s pre-concert talk. From the steady trickle of late-comers, I wonder whether the new 6:30 starting time for these presentations is too early; if they started 15 minutes later, would there still be time for them before the 7:30 concert opening? It was fitting that the talk began by drawing attention to two early 19th-century images in the evening’s program booklet. Neff observed the value of the drawings, which depicted two of H & H’s instrumentalists from the period, for reconstructing early 19th-century performance practices. Among these was the use of a small instrumental component of just 12 players, as well as the manner of holding the violin, closer to what we now think of as a “Baroque” grip than a modern one. By the same token, however, I wish that the music on the program had not been described as being for soloists and “orchestra.” The concertos were conceived by their composers as chamber music, and indeed they were performed as such by Nosky and her colleagues.
Such playing, and not merely the use of “period” instruments, is part of the enduring legacy that the ensemble has inherited from the late Christopher Hogwood, who, as Neff duly noted, led the organization’s adoption of historical performance style in 1986. One hopes for further programs of this sort, dedicated to more adventurous selections: perhaps a Tartini violin concerto, or one of the many equally extraordinary ones by Gottlieb Graun? maybe a flute concerto by Quantz (but not in G major), or a keyboard concerto by C. P. E. Bach? None of these would disappoint the sort of audience that was present Friday night, and they might even attract some who eschew programs largely of familiar compositions.