New Year’s Eve with the Boston Baroque is, assuredly, an enjoyable if not fascinating event. The almost packed Sanders Theater affords a glow of serious cheeriness that is altogether inviting. The formally attired musicians, of whom there are not many and who take up but a portion of center stage, encourage a welcoming intimacy. In ways, Boston Baroque’s concentration on Vivaldi could not have been more suitable fare: the Four Seasons might have even prompted a year in review for some listeners on hand, many of them repeaters for this kind of celebration.
Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6 no. 5, began the evening. Boston Baroque delivered it with absolute verve under the direction of longtime Music Director Martin Pearlman. His long baton, though seeming outsized for so small an ensemble, nevertheless visibly directed the ears of those curious about interpretation of Baroque performance practice. Stateliness and liveliness could not be missed in the first movement. A beautifully registered trio in counterpoint, or better yet single strokes from the full orchestra, could be heard and seen.
But what happened in that added final movement, a Menuet with variations, that Handel decided to attach (according to Pearlman), raised questions. Energy dropped off. The movement did not connect convincingly to the other four, all of which received stellar readings. You need not have been among the cognoscenti to find yourself in full swing with Boston Baroque for this Handel.
Joy came in immeasurable supply simply from eyeing Aldo Abreu perform on a small recorder. His dexterity was something, fingers flying high off the instrument like files of dominos falling one by one in blinding succession. In Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major for sopranino recorder, strings, and continuo, the virtuoso Abreu dazzled with in combining speeds, heights, and circular breathing.
But presence was another matter. Given that there was no amplification for the tiny instrument Pearlman referred to as “a little stick,” a sense of distance between listener and performance became a diversion. Could toning down Boston Baroque have helped?
Still and all, encountering the sopranino, for many a first, had to have been a plus for Baroque revelers. For an encore, Abreu, a natural on stage, reached inside his suitcoat and pulled out the even smaller garklein recorder, less than six inches. A sensational and absolutely enthralling encore it was, and over in barely a minute. He transformed the Nightingale by Jacob van Noort via that twig of an instrument into a bird displaying vivid bravura.
For the Four Seasons, Pearlman led from the harpsichord. He preceded each of the concertos with a reading of Vivaldi’s sonnets, literary descriptions of the sounds in the composer’s music.
Probably the best-known of Vivaldi’s seasons is Spring. The moment of the entire concert came just after the thunder and lightning, with skies darkened and a melancholy bird singing. Here violin soloist Christina Day Martinson and Boston Baroque found a freshness truly evoking a spring day.
There were delicacies and refinements in the Adagio of Summer. The unresolved harmonies in the slow movement of Autumn had no tension, however. For the outer fast movements of the concertos, Boston Baroque re-created the ritornellos, especially those in both Autumn and Winter, with satisfying drive, the final refrains coming with celebratory forcefulness.
Martinson’s ideas about the music took to stylization. The uptempos taken in the fast movements had her often sacrificing power and expressiveness. But there are a great deal of introspection and Baroque idealization in her playing, which made for a fascinating listening adventure into the era.
The concert repeated Friday.