A 16-strong contingent of strings from the Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra entertained a somewhat more-than-halfway-full Jordan Hall on Friday night with “Glories of the Italian Baroque.” Directed by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, the concert also included solos by cellist Guy Fishman and five other bowed string players. Yet after Nosky the most prominent soloist, seated close to center stage, was guitarist and lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis (more on that later).
Besides three concertos by Vivaldi, the program included four works by his younger contemporaries Durante, Locatelli, and Brescianello. Most familiar were two compositions that Bach later arranged for keyboard instruments, both from Vivaldi’s opus 3 of 1711: R. 310 in G for violin and strings, and R. 580 for four violins, two violas, and continuo. (Individual works by Vivaldi are identified by “R” numbers from the catalog by the Danish musicologist Peter Ryom.) These, together with the cello concerto R. 403 in D major, received driving performances that brought enthusiastic applause and whoops from the audience but which tended to focus on more superficial aspects.
Potentially more interesting was the work entitled La Pazzia (Madness), one of nine concerti a quartetto written during the 1730s or 1740s by the Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante. Although bearing out its title with predictably unpredictable tempo fluctuations, the work may be most remarkable for its recurring solo passages for two violas. Their contributions represent an oasis of sanity amidst the rather generic 18th-century representations of craziness played by the violins. Violists Karina Schmitz and Max Mandel performed singingly, although on a technical point I must register a demurral about their consistently unturned cadential trills. And a little mannerism that might have been striking if the violins used it only once or twice—a slide that turned chromatic intervals into little sighs or shrieks—ran the risk of growing tiresome after having already been heard.
A chaconne attributed to the Stuttgart-based violinist Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, which has been making the period-orchestra rounds, alternates between phrases reminiscent of Lully, the French 17th-century composer, and generic Vivaldian figuration. This latter was avoided by the somewhat more original violinist Pietro Locatelli, two of whose opus 7 concertos bookended. Both of these, designated as concerti grossi, include substantial solos for the principal first violin, yet neither is a fully fledged solo concerto. It was an unselfish gesture by Nosky to give these such prominent placement. It was also a stroke of imagination to conclude the evening with Locatelli’s work known as Il pianto d’Arianna (Ariadne’s Tears), which ends sadly and quietly, in the rare key of E-flat minor. This gave the otherwise in-your-face program a reflective denouement.
Yet Locatelli’s Ariadne, left stranded on Naxos, is not that of either Monteverdi or Strauss. Wherever Locatelli’s inspiration lay—surely not in the lost opera by Monteverdi, whose music was virtually unknown in the 18th century—he realized it in what again seemed to this listener rather generic late-Baroque terms. This piece received perhaps the most carefully thought-through (and most rehearsed?) performance. Still, even Nosky’s dramatic rendition of several quasi-recitatives could not shake the impression that in both concertos Locatelli was mainly imitating things heard in the operas of Hasse and other post-Vivaldian contemporaries.
Nosky’s fellow violin soloists—Susanna Ogata, Christina Day Martinson, and Adriane Post—so matched her own virtuosity in the B-minor Vivaldi work that it is impossible to single any of them out. Guy Fishman proved equally spectacular in the quick movements of his concerto, though he, like the others, might consider that some pieces prove more impressive when executed in such a manner that one can actually hear each of the flying notes. It is rare that a plucked instrument can be described as being too prominent a member of the basso continuo (the group of instruments that provides a partially improvised accompaniment in a Baroque ensemble work). But in this performance the theorbo, a large long-necked lute, actually overpowered Ian Watson’s deferential harpsichord.
This might not have mattered had the lutenist not consistently added the fussy type of figuration that 40 or 50 years ago was considered mandatory in a keyboard continuo part. As a harpsichordist, I understand the impulse to offer something expressive or imaginative on an instrument that is more seen than heard in concerts of this type. But for an accompanist to promote himself or herself to soloist by adding little licks that distract from or, worse, get in the way of the real soloists—as was the case toward the end of the “Ariadne” concerto—seems to me needlessly self-indulgent, in addition to being contrary to the common-sense advice of 18th-century writers on the subject. (Bach is supposed to have done it—but he was Bach.) Even worse, to these ears, was the guitar’s infliction of flamenco-style syncopations and cross-rhythms on the Durante work and the B-minor Vivaldi concerto.
The Baroque guitar was a refined chamber instrument, and its orchestral use in this repertory is, as far as I am aware, undocumented, although it is common today. Because the pitches of the instrument cannot be readily heard above the bowed strings, in such a setting the guitar becomes effectively a percussion instrument. If one thinks this music needs a jazzy rhythm section, one might as well add a drum set. Audiences do love this sort of thing, at least the first few times they hear it. But to these ears the gratuitous additions coarsen the music, making it harder to pay attention to the things that attracted even Bach to these pieces.
My standard disclaimers apply: the excellent bass player Robert Nairn is a colleague of mine at The Juilliard School; one of the violin soloists, the very fine Adriane Post, studied there but never with me; and I’ve performed with two or three of the other players, one of whom has probably forgotten our collaboration in Bach’s version of Vivaldi’s B-minor concerto, on what we called the Forty Fingers Concert at Harvard’s Dunster House in 1975, with the four solo keyboard parts dispatched on harpsichord, virginal, chamber organ, and modern piano. I mention this last only to dispel any notion that this reviewer is a so-called purist when it comes to performance. H & H makes no claim to be “historically authentic,” and I’m not criticizing it for not being what it doesn’t pretend to be. But I would be disappointed if an urge merely to dazzle or to entertain were to prevail over creativity or expression.