United Kingdom Vivaldi: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Florilegium: Ashley Solomon (flute, director), Bojan Čičić, Huw Daniel, Andrea Jones (violin), Malgorzata Ziemkiewicz (viola), Christopher Poffley (cello), Carina Cosgrave (bass), Terence Charlston (harpsichord, organ), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 18.10.2011 (GPu)
Concerto Madrigalesco RV129
Salve Regina RV617
Concerto: Il Gran Mogul
Nulla in mundo RV630
Concerto: Il Grosso Mogul RV208
Laudate Pueri Dominum RV601
This is a programme that Florilegium and Elin Manahan Thomas have performed on a number of occasions – one, indeed, that they have recorded on a newly issued CD. There was, however, not the slightest sense of over-familiarity or of routine about this particular concert performance of this intelligently made selection of Vivaldi’s music, in which concerti were interwoven with solo motets. Throughout there was vivacity and, where appropriate, real weight and expressiveness; no one who listened attentively to this concert could surely ever again pay any heed to those often repeated claims that “all Vivaldi sounds the same” or, as Stravinsky is supposed to have said, that Vivaldi didn’t so much write 500 concertos as write the same one “many times”. There was great variety in the music to which the audience was treated in this, the last concert of this year’s Swansea Festival.
Il Gran Mogul was only rediscovered last year (amongst the papers of Lord Robert Kerr, a flute playing Scottish nobleman who had visited Italy and who was killed at the Battle of Culloden in 1746). Ashley Solomon handled the rapid passage work of the first movement with panache and his articulation of the sinuous, slightly exotic, melodic line of the slow movement was a delight, full of delicate beauty, the flute elegantly (but firmly) supported by the rest of Florilegium. In the brief Concerto Madrigalesco which began the programme (one of the concertos Vivaldi wrote for the female instrumentalists of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice) the quasi-vocal qualities implicit in the work’s title were made wholly evident, especially in the meditative and yearning opening adagio which, though brief, packs quite an emotional punch; the fugal writing of the ensuing allegro was presented with great (but never merely clinical) clarity and, after the brief interlude of the second adagio, the closing allegro (using materials from the composer’s Magnificat in G minor, RV 610), with its return to contrapuntal writing, was played in a manner which balanced energy and transparency of texture and carried a thoroughly satisfying ‘sense of an ending’, of formal completeness. Of the purely instrumental works, however, the highlight was undoubtedly Il Grosso Mogul. This is the concerto for which two of Vivaldi’s own cadenzas survive (for the first and last movements). Bojan Čičić’s playing of these cadenzas – and indeed the rest of his work in the concerto – was a consummate demonstration of the art of the baroque violin (and, incidentally, showed off the tonal range and power of his instrument, made by F. Ruggieri in 1690). Dazzling as these lengthy cadenzas were, the playing of the central slow movement (in which the version in the autograph manuscript was used) was in no way overshadowed; marked recitativo the soloist here tells a powerful ‘story’, full of gravity and grace, of tenderness and altogether unsentimental sweetness. This is one of the finest of all baroque violin concertos and Čičić and his colleagues did something very like full justice to it in their memorable interpretation, which would alone have justified attendance at the concert.
But there was more – three of Vivaldi’s fascinating motets, sung with both vocal agility and expressiveness by Elin Manahan Thomas (returning to her home town of Swansea and speaking to the audience in both Welsh and English). Thomas’s voice is less ‘boyish’ (an adjective often used of it) than it was a few years ago; it is ampler and richer, more tonally varied, especially towards the bottom end of its range than previously. She seems not to have lost any of her earlier ability to produce crystalline high notes but, across the range, she now has a more complete and various instrument at her command. The intelligence with which she interprets text has always been one of her virtues and it was evident on more than one occasion here – as in the clarifying emphases she gave to the final sentence (‘O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria) of the Salve Regina, in which Ashley Solomon’s flute obbligato was a perfectly judged accompaniment to the vocal lines. In the elaborate vocal writing of Nulla in mundo pax sincera, full of flourishes and ornament, Thomas enjoyed (as did her audience) the vocal acrobatics, but also managed to persuade the hearer that this was not writing designed merely to show off the voice, that the music was not mere ostentation (however splendid); rather that Vivaldi cared and felt the significance of his text. When the singer proclaims ‘Blando colore oculos mundus decepit / at occulto vulnere corda confiicit’ (The world tricks our eyes with its lovely colours, but murders hearts with hidden wounds), we are surely meant to understand the sentiments as relating, too, to Vivaldi’s awareness of the moral ambiguities of his own pursuit of musical beauty. But perhaps such worries were momentarily forgotten when he wrote the high-flying ornamentations of the closing Alleluia, which Thomas handled with immense assurance – here, one might be persuaded, was the musical expression of what the motet’s text calls ‘casti amoris sola spe’ (the single hope of pure love). In Laudate pueri, too, the fluid vocal lines didn’t exist at the cost of clarity of diction or emotional expressiveness; the Gloria, in which the flute joins the voice, strings and continuo, was very moving; this was a Vivaldi both exhilarating and substantial, emotionally and intellectually speaking.
As an encore Thomas returned to sing ‘Lascia Ch’io Pianga’ from Act II of Handel’s Rinaldo and did so with great emotional expressiveness which was yet quiet and dignified, quite unforced or unexaggerated. In its tenderness and gravity and, oddly, in its freedom from the fireworks of much of what had preceded it, it made for an unexpectedly fitting conclusion to an excellent concert.