Wine-Tasting and the Red Priest

United StatesUnited States Bach and Vivaldi: Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor and harpsichord), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 12.10.2010 (BJ)

The Seattle Symphony first dipped its toe into wine (figuratively speaking, of course) three years ago, when the composer featured after a pre-concert tasting event was Beethoven. More recently, it is music of the baroque that has been thus paired, and an evening of Bach and Vivaldi was the first offering in this season’s series.

There was ample freshness and zest in the performances led by Rinaldo Alessandrini, and he had devised a program whose first half provided a stimulating alternation between relatively unfamiliar Vivaldi concertos, and cantata sinfonias that Bach arranged out of his own instrumental works. Rhythmic vitality was central to the conductor’s approach, and this made for enjoyable listening. Balance, on the other hand, seemed sometimes to have been left largely to chance, so that, especially in the more heavily scored sections of the music, it was a matter of speculation to determine where exactly the tune was.

Alessandrini works most frequently with period-instrument ensembles, and in keeping with his historically informed performance practice orientation, he drew largely vibrato-free playing from the orchestra (though just occasionally a player here or there would momentarily forget not to do what he or she is usually expected to provide). The two Vivaldi concertos, nos. 562 and 569 in Peter Ryom’s catalogue of the composer’s works, feature more varied scoring than many of his works, including some woodwinds and a pair of horns, who certainly earned their intermission dismissal with bright execution of their challenging parts.

Also featured in both those works is a solo violin. Curiously, the listing in the program did not see fit to tell the audience that the soloist was the orchestra’s principal second violin, Elisa Barston, who also fulfilled concertmaster duties for this concert. As vividly red-haired as the composer—he was popularly known as “the red priest,” on visual rather than political grounds—she also matched his often idiosyncratic invention with her brilliant playing, throwing off prodigies of virtuosity, and was rewarded with a thoroughly merited ovation.

The second half of the concert was devoted exclusively to Bach. I am not sure that programming a harpsichord concerto makes much sense in a hall the size of Benaroya, for all its excellent acoustics. In the D-major concerto, Bach’s arrangement of his well-known E-major Violin Concerto, the conductor’s solo contribution at the keyboard did not amount to much more than a rather distant tinkle.

With the usual selectivity of authenticists, Alessandrini is inclined to indulge in all sorts of dynamic swells and ebbs. A case in point was the phrasing of the tutti figure in the strings that follows on the concerto’s initial phrase: on each recurrence, it began fairly loud and then immediately faded down dynamically in a manner that didn’t sound to me very stylish.

Alessandrini was also less than consistent in his observation of repeats. The performance of the Suite No. 3 in D major that ended the evening omitted the ones in the return of the first gavotte after the second was played. In this work, too, the big tuttis suffered from a rather overloaded orchestral texture in which balance was less than refined.

The famous Air, however (the movement for his soupy version of which “on the G string” August Wilhelmj earned everlasting shame), was magical, played at a sensibly flowing tempo, and indeed airily phrased. This was one of the highlights in a concert that, if inconsistently successful in some respects, gave much uncomplicated pleasure.

Bernard Jacobson