Inasmuch as YouTube has 448,000 hits for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, one wondered whether the estimable Boston Early Music Festival was showing much imagination by bringing “Summer” as well as several other popular Italian Baroque works to a soldout audience at Cambridge’s First Church Congregational on Friday, one week before the eagerly anticipated vernal equinox.
Had the selection come in a less original and lively wrapper, it might have sat unnoticed under a snowbank. As offered by the Venice Baroque Orchestra (VBO) with mandolinist Avi Avital, though, the gift was just what we needed.
It’s not common to play violin concertos on the mandolin, but that’s how we heard “Summer”. Avital prefaced the work with a charming description of his exposure to it as a five-year-old via jacketless LP. He knew from the disc seal that four seasons were involved, and loved “Winter” the best. At least he thought it was “Winter”, since that’s the rainy season in Avital’s native Israel. Turns out that in the watery plains of Venice the rain falls mainly in the summer, and it was that season the musical forces of nature illustrated.
Not to slight Venice Baroque, since they are among the most virtuosic and engaged such contingent I have heard, but Avital raised its players’ adrenaline, and ours, by an order of magnitude beyond what is typical from specialist ensembles. At times his frisson lifted the proceedings to ecstatic levels.
VBO’s worklist looked unprepossessing: nine relatively short works with fast-slow-fast movements by five composers without a single final consonant to their names. Within each movement, the predictable loud-soft alternations could have sounded relentless. Yet jollity prevailed. As with the consonants, there were also few full stops in the playing. Beginning with a Vivaldi sinfonia, VBO offered astonishingly varied legato with a sumptuousness that at the same time proved brilliantly clean. There was none of the exaggerated emphasis dished out by other historically correct bands, instead came a variety of articulation that was simultaneously expressive and unanimous—this despite the absence of a conductor.
The tone from the 15 players (4, 4, 2, 2, 1, plus lute and harpsichord) was satisfying in the voluminous sanctuary, although there was no real bite from the gut strings (perhaps original cat gave more of a shriek than today’s cow); that had to wait until Avital’s eight shiny metal ones stood in for lute in Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto in D Major RV93. Avital commanded both stage and crowd, raising the level of interaction all around. He wooed, cajoled, whipped, plucked and thrummed to a Paganiniesque fare thee well. His communicative brilliance and interpretative alacrity must be the envy of mere mortal entertainers. In the opening Allegro, his palette of colors and vocabulary of shadings seemed nearly infinite, and the infectious ping of the mandolin allowed the pedestrian piece to transcend its predictable notes. The Largo was ornamented in a way that sounded bel canto: aching pianissimos and arching phrases brought rapt and romantic responses from the band; the swooning became general. In the final Allegro all caution was abandoned—but without disaster.
Speaking of wooing, Avital later returned to the stage in the company of violin/recorder doubler Anna Fusek for Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for Two Mandolins in G Major RV532. The stage business between Avital and Fusek (who played the second mandolin part on a peeping soprano recorder) was almost X-rated. If the part had been played on a fuller-bodied transverse flute, it might have carried with more equality; for some reason I kept summoning images of the owl and the pussycat in a wooden shell. During the romancing in the Largo, though, Fusek melted, and as heard over the suitably curtained pizzicato accompaniment, her tiny wooden flute seemed to have grown. When, in the last movement, the speed of discourse ramped up to Fellini-fast Italian, the musical dialectic was well-argued and fluent. Band and soloists earned lively approbation from all present.
As the second half began with Geminiani’s six fast- and six slow-movement Concerto Grosso for Strings in D Minor, La Follia (after Corelli), the variation structure with lightning alternations of fast-forward with mournful pathos made for quite the divertissement. Baroque bows bouncing lightly on strings alternated with serious diggings-in; pausing to savor ripe roses alternated with vigorous sowing of seeds. Trills lined up vertically and horizontally in the fast portions, but a bit more warmth could have come in the adagios (having Avital conduct would have helped). The refined continuo from lute cello, harpsichord and double bass allowed the solo airs to soar—and in many of these, concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco gave glorious accounts. The final Allegro blazed truly, with no technical limitation to arrest the conflagration. This erased my lingering doubts about early-music virtuosity.
Before the concluding “Summer,” Avital took us from Venice to Naples, warning us against broad generalizations on Italian tropes, even as he implied the Neapolitans are more volatile and paisan-ish than the Venetians. Thus, Giovanni Paisiello’s (1740-1816) E-flat Major Mandolin Concerto (authorship disputed by some) could be expected frequently to change character without preparation. If Vivaldi can be thought of as a Baroque instrumental Verdi, then Paisiello must be a Leoncavallo. Not sounding a half-century advanced over Vivaldi, Paisiello nevertheless penned the program’s most idiomatic early utterance for mandolin. A late Beethoven quartet it was not, even if the arresting cadenza did seem to look ahead, but the swoop and sway of the final allegretto left us in a state of grace.
Then on to the top of the charts for the bravura finish. Would we miss the solo violin in “Summer”? Not in the least. We have heard it in original dress so many times, including on top 40 classical radio, that we were altogether pleased to discover what Avital did. Suffice it to say, when a storm materialized in which we could count every hailstone, the musical representation of the pelting wind and rain was the most convincing onomatopoeia we have experienced. Coming at the conclusion of its very successful US tour, of which the Thursday NY Times said, “Avi Avital’s performance … with the Venice Baroque Orchestra was nothing short of electric”, the VBO remained expressive and energized in the extreme, holding nothing back, and with Avital earned a pair of encores.
In “Bucimiš,” a traditional Bulgarian song (from Avital’s “Between Worlds” album), we were transported to idioms of gypsy, klezmer, pop and nightclub, which served to reveal how far Avital has taken the mandolin beyond early music and ’30s kitsch. He held court, if not like a high priest of his instrument in the manner of Ravi Shankar, then certainly irrepressibly as a Friar Tuck with his staff. VBO participated in the next encore, the largo from Vivaldi’s Flautino Concerto in C Major, here arranged for you know what. Two-and-a-half hours after the evening started, energy, songfulness and indeed rapture all remained high. Sealing his pact with the very happy audience, Avital charmingly aimed his cellphone out into the house, to add our portraits to his tour gallery.