Europa Galante Still Swinging with Vivaldi after Twenty-Five Years  

23/02/2015

 Vivaldi:  Vivica Genaux (mezzo), Europa Galante / Fabio Biondi (violin/director),  Town Hall, Birmingham, 19.2.15 (GR)

Europa Galante Photo copyright Ana de Labra

Europa Galante Photo copyright Ana de Labra

Antonio Vivaldi:
Sinfonia from Ercole su’l Termodonte
Stabat Mater
Alma opressa from La fida ninfa
Agitata da due venti from L’Adelaide
Le quattro stagione (The Four Seasons) Op 8 No. 1-4

 

The Birmingham International Concert Season features a great deal of quality in its 2014/15 programme and none more renowned in their own field than the artists assembled on 19th February at Birmingham Town Hall. Formed in 1990 by Fabio Biondi, the Europa Galante ensemble (see photo) achieved immediate success with their period instrument recordings and performances of Baroque music. One year earlier Nigel Kennedy had had a huge box office hit with his CD of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but in my view this interpretation was eclipsed by the 1992 version from Biondi and his Italian group. This concert of pure Vivaldi marked twenty-five years of international renown for them; their characteristic sound for Le quattro stagione was as vibrant as ever!

 Before the main billing, there were other Vivaldi delights in store. These began with the composer’s Sinfonia from Ercole su’l Termodonte, just one of the forty-nine or so opera librettos scored by Vivaldi. {Biondi recorded the work with an all-star cast in 2009, well worth a listen} On this occasion Europa Galante were (excluding Biondi) thirteen strong and I use the word deliberately: three first violins, three second violins, two violas, two cellos, one double bass, theorbo and harpsichord. In conventional three movement Baroque form of Quick/Slow/Quick, Biondi bounced threw the piece with barely a pause, synonymous with the boldness of a fearless Hercules, ready for any task the female Amazonian warriors of Thermodon might throw at him. Amid the hurdy-gurdy, Biondi demonstrated there was beauty as well as brawn in his bow during the middle section.

 VivicaGenaux Photo Credit (c) CHRISTIAN STEINER

VivicaGenaux
Photo Credit (c) CHRISTIAN STEINER

In hallowed contrast the Red Priest’s Stabat Mater followed, comprising verses 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 and the Amen of the complete medieval poem on the sorrows of Mary. It was a moving and dolorosa rendition from mezzo Vivica Genaux (see photo) backed by a reduced Europa Galante, striking the right balance between the work’s theatrical and liturgical empathies: while on the one hand Pertransivit gladius produced a drama of its own, the anguish of the subsequent O quam tristis et afflicta tore at the heart strings.

 Lamentations of a similar magnitude were unmistakable in the next number from Genaux, now together with the full complement of Europa Galante – but they were the product of a different emotion, that of a soul weighed down by cruel fate: Alma opressa (A soul oppressed) from another Vivaldi opera, La fida ninfa (The faithful nymph). After a stunning held note on the opening A of Alma, Genaux, casting off any reserve she may have displayed during the previous sacred number, launched herself into the pyrotechnics that pepper the aria, attacking the cascades of notes in a flamboyant yet precise manner; there was resilience too, as the faithful nymph Licori, she was (like Hercules) not going to let fate triumph over her, at least not at this stage in the narrative. The fioratura continued in another bravura aria: Agitata da due venti from a third Vivaldi opera L’Adelaide. To me this showcase piece will always be associated with Cecilia Bartoli and there can be no higher praise than to say that Genaux out-Bartoli-ed Cecilia! By no means the only mention Vivaldi makes in his operas to the wind and its quivering, it was not difficult to envisage these natural phenomena as Genaux bobbed up and down with the waves. With amazing breath control, controlled dynamics, flexible coloratura, ebullient stage presence, Genaux has it all. However I wondered whether she might have chosen a more glamorous outfit, although perhaps with widely contrasting genre this may have been difficult.

 With such an exhilarating first half it would have been easy for the second period to have been an anti-climax, but the Europa Galante players ensured the excitement remained at fever pitch with a blitzkrieg of an engagement with Le quattro stagione. It had an element of the wild and untamed, a presentation that made it difficult to stay still in your seat. This was programme music of the highest calibre, each of the four seasons having been associated by Vivaldi to a sonnet describing how nature changes her coat. Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, La primavera (Spring) started peaceful enough, but as nature took a hold in the first Allegro movement, there was a magnificently symbolic representation of nature bursting forth – the nimble fingers of Fabio Biondi representative of new life emerging from the ravages of hibernation, the double bass seemingly wanting to quell such an affront. The second Largo movement had spring on hold, Biondi and the pizzicato of the first viola consolidating the green shoots, time as the sonnet relayed for the shepherd to take a nap before the next push. The third Allegro movement had the Europa Galante players giving thanks in celebratory style with a major contribution from the three first violins.

 Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, L’estate (Summer) began in lethargic mood (Allegro non molto) with some sumptuously mellow harmony, befitting the hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer, birds singing and soft winds blowing. The anticipated storm worries our shepherd in the Adagio: a virtuosic solo allowed Biondi to paint a graphic picture of both the blessed blossom and the troublesome insects. But stemming from the oppressive heat, temperatures on both stage and auditorium were raised by the fiery tempo of the Presto, energy and passion unbounded in the violence of the storm. Although the resident orchestra of the Fondadzione Teatro Due in Parma must have played the work a hundred times, it still sounded fresh as their obvious enthusiasm had not dimmed.

 Having stood up to the battering of the first two concerti, the strings of Biondi’s Guarneri were subjected to more punishment in Concerto No. 3 in F major, Op. 8, RV 293, L’autunno (Autumn). The ever-so-familiar opening Allegro strains led into an attention-grabbing conversation between the breaks of Biondi and the remaining erectile violinists arranged around their leader. But there was nothing casual about it as both the theorbo of Giangiacomo Pinardi and the harpsichord of Paola Poncet made forceful expletives. In the Adagio molto Poncet did have her moment, suggesting an autumnal feel, heralding a distinct change in the air. The strings caught the mood and echoed it with feeling, shades of mists and mellow fruitfulness. However Vivaldi had other ideas and indications of an Indian summer emerged in the third Allegro section before the final strains indicated a ‘going to sleep’. No wonder the instrumentalists checked their tuning at this point!

 And when winter comes in Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, L’inverno (Winter) there was a grimness to Europa Galante’s Allegro non molto tone, interspersed with more dynamic finger and bow movement from Biondi. Indeed Biondi was rarely static throughout the four concerti (reminding me of the legendary Stefan Grapelli) yet showing little evidence of fatigue. An interesting application of double stopping built the tension to the closing repeat of the main theme. The Largo was another example of Vivaldi’s penchant for recycling a good tune (this one having been borrowed by Hayley Westenra in her River of Dreams) although with Biondi’s players there is always something new to hear, notably in this instance some musical gymnastics on the cello; together with the pizzicato on the strings it reminded me of a steam train about to set off, with the pure pitch of Biondi’s solo both driver and station master. The third Allegro phase of winter, part recapitulation, part reflective, proved how adept Biondi’s technique is at manoeuvring between Vivaldi’s hemi- demi-semi-quavers (even quicker than Genaux, and that’s saying something). The whole was true to Vivaldi’s intention to compose a work that was a contest between harmony and invention – a concert to remain in the memory for a very long time!

Geoff Read

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