Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque once again celebrated the new year Friday at Sanders Theater with a memorable mixture of works well-loved, somewhat familiar, and little known. At opposite ends of this spectrum were Antonio Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) and the Concerto in C Major for sopranino recorder (RV 443), while George Frideric Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6 No. 5, occupied the middle ground. As the program booklet, which encompassed BB’s December Messiah as well, included no relevant annotation beyond Vivaldi’s sonnets for The Four Seasons, director Pearlman made some well-chosen, concise remarks ahead of each piece. Continuing its own much-appreciated custom, Cambridge Trust Company underwrote champagne and chocolates at the intermission. This extremely popular concert had sold out some time ago; when the organization decided to add roughly 50 more seats on the Sanders stage, on either side of the ensemble, they sold out as well in under an hour.
In writing his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, Handel borrowed musical material fairly liberally from his own pre-existing works (notably, the Ode to Saint Cecilia) as well as those of other composers, “a practice for which he would probably be sued today.” The opening flourish from concertmaster Christina Day Martinson led into an ebullient introductory movement quite fitting for the day. In an elegant performance, highlights included the stereophonic effect of the exchanges between the first and second violins (wisely placed on either side of the conductor) in the Presto third movement as well as between their principals, Martinson and Sarah Darling, in the Largo fourth movement. Additionally, the sixth movement Menuet with two variations (a Handel innovation) was charming and even gently comic: the second variation enjoyed subverting expected rhythmic patterns.
Several years ago at the BB New Year’s Day concert, virtuoso recorder player Aldo Abreu performed one of Vivaldi’s three concerti for sopranino recorder, the most diminutive and highest-pitched of the recorder family—officially (Abreu has several even smaller). On this occasion, the artist returned to give us another of the three concerti, which were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà, a home in Venice for abandoned children. As someone who has never played anything higher than a soprano recorder, I marveled again at (1) how brilliantly the player negotiated the sopranino’s finger-holes, so close together, and (2) how virtually perfect his breath-flow was—so easy to overblow. In Vivaldi’s first movement, brilliant display predominated in the solo part so the occasional contrasting sustained passage was all the more beguiling (one couldn’t help but think of the Pied Piper). The slow movement featured a delectable contrast of texture: Abreu spun out a lovely legato line above the strings’ staccato chords. It was good to be reminded that this tiny instrument, in the right hands, can sing as well as dazzle. The final movement contained more fireworks, some triplet passages in particular, as well as generous amounts of ornamentation. Near the end, Vivaldi, via BB and Abreu, surprised us with a slower passage in the minor before reverting to Tempo I and the major for an effervescent ending. The audience’s hugely enthusiastic response led to an encore: the unaccompanied Die Nachtigall of Dutch composer Jacob van Noort. Abreu’s most spectacular playing of all may have depicted a highly over-caffeinated nightingale but was no less enjoyable for that.
Following festive New Year’s libations at intermission, we returned to hear that most popular (or, potentially, hackneyed) of Baroque works, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Noting that the composer had written ideas from the sonnets into the musical scores, Pearlman prudently read each sonnet before its respective concerto, in case anyone hadn’t read them in the booklet, highlighting musical evocations to listen for. He and his soloist, Christina Day Martinson, are keenly aware of the ubiquity of these pieces of program music and at pains not merely to be technically stunning but, more importantly, to respond in creative and individual ways to the composer’s detailed program. With the harpsichord repositioned, Pearlman conducted highly effectively from the keyboard.
In the first movement of “Spring” the top three violinists, Martinson, principal second Sarah Darling, and concertmaster pro tempore Jesse Irons, were delightful in the passage depicting a group conversation of exuberant birds. The only time I was nostalgic for the heavier, richer sound of modern instruments was at the brief illustration of thunder and lightning—my cultural bias, I suppose—and the many more of them to come (Vivaldi surely enjoyed depicting inclement weather!). In the slow movement, Martinson’s ornamentation of the solo part, over a rudimentary accompaniment, was extensive but convincingly stylish, reminding us of the base meaning of “baroque”. A highlight of the final movement was the spiccato section in which the BB strings delicately portrayed the nymphs of the sonnet.
The first movement of “Summer” offered the contrast of the ensemble’s torpid sighing figures with the soloist’s furious energy complete with cuckoo figures embedded in the figuration. At the movement’s end, the fierce conflict of the two winds, Zephyr and Boreas, was a tour de gale force. Another episode of energy-sapping heat in the second movement, with pesky insects and approaching thunder, gives way to the third movement’s thunderstorm. Descending scales, buffeted back and forth between first and second violins, vividly depicted heavy rain and hail; Martinson’s savage playing, too, showed the “hailstones hew[ing] off the heads of proud cornstalks.” Electrifying and highly pictorial playing came from all the musicians.
In something of a non sequitur, “Autumn” begins with the celebration of a fine harvest; perhaps some cornstalks survived? The first movement had an infectious good cheer though soon enough the effects of imbibing became apparent: unpredictable fluctuations of tempo showed increasing levels of intoxication, and a slower minor section made one see the drooping eyelids of the revelers (Martinson subtly but deliciously bent the pitch here for a sly musical joke). In the fascinating slumberous slow movement, without a solo part, the strings fill in the continually unstable harmonies of the slowly arpeggiated harpsichord part. Subtle dynamic variation enhanced the atmosphere here. The hunt of the last movement also featured a great deal of dynamic variation, but much more overt. The high spirits (of the non-alcoholic variety only) of the opening return here, vigorously led by Martinson. A highlight was the most loudly percussive ensemble pizzicatos I’ve ever experienced, presumably part of the process of intimidating the quarry which, after an attempt to escape, duly succumbs.
To those expecting another monster winter here, the sonnet of “Winter” gave cold comfort. As New Englanders, the artists no doubt had especially keen responses to it and its respective concerto. Some of the most demanding passages of the whole concert came at its end in this concerto, but the outstanding playing of the band and Martinson betrayed no hint of fatigue. The extremely rapid repeated-note figures of the first movement (chattering teeth), for instance, were sharply defined. The oasis of calm in the slow movement, basking by the fire, was a special gem: the violins were played pizzicato in mandolin position, the cellos played a continuous 32nd-note obbligato (no textual reference in the sonnet–a purring cat, perhaps?), while the solo violin sang a handsome melody. The finale contained a bit more sly humor: at one point both Martinson and the ensemble, as directed by Pearlman, had plentiful tempo fluctuations to depict someone exercising maximum caution to walk on ice–in vain, of course, because there was also a clear subsequent musical depiction of said person landing on his/her derrière. An unexpected sweet passage followed (a good Samaritan helping the person get back up?) before warring winds again caused a brilliant and savage conclusion.
Handel can always be relied upon for musical solidity at the very least, a Concerto for Sopranino Recorder is a rarely heard novelty for most (and an opportunity to hear Aldo Abreu is not to be missed), but certainly the big draw had to be The Four Seasons. Martin Pearlman, Christina Day Martinson, and Boston Baroque met the challenge of making their own artistic statements about this extremely familiar music without ever losing sight of its composer’s aims, and thrilling us with some pyrotechnical playing in the bargain.