Fresh Life Breathed into Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vivaldi: V4 The Seasons Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Kati Debretzeni (violin); Henri Oguike (choreographer) and his dance company. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London 8.2.2013 (CC)

This was a quite remarkable event – as the booklet put it a marriage of the muses Polyhymnia and Terpsichore (referring presumably to the sonnets that accompany the concertos, and the choreography, and missing out Euterpe the muse of music). Neither was this a simple question of static musicians meeting mobile, twisty dancers: the violin soloist, Kati Debretzeni, was sometimes found in the main body of the stage, interacting with the dancers. The muses met, exchanged ideas, each infused and enriched by the other.

It was, of course, a short concert (there were two such, one at 630pm – the one I attended – and another at 8.30pm). Yet so much was packed densely into the short space of time (around forty minutes) that one emerged enriched, energised and not one jot short-changed. The fusion of period performance and contemporary dance provided the necessary frisson for an active reframing of Vivaldi’s familiar masterpiece on the part of the audience. The triumph here was that neither music nor dance gained supremacy, nor indeed did they seem to vie for it – the symbiotic relationship between what we saw and what we heard was the key to the success here. The occasional choreographed stomping of dancers (even Debretzeni got into this action) added a primal edge to a performance already characterised by its very vitality.

The opening ‘Spring’ concerto was bright (the authentic approach heightening this aspect of the score); the concertante dialogue between Debretzeni and several of her violin colleagues early on was breathtakingly fresh. Matching this was the exuberance of the dance. Tracing stories (or proto-narratives) was part of the magic – were the dance couples having relationship problems? No problem matching the pas de deux of Spring’s Largo. Here, Debretzeni’s finely-spun long cantabile line accompanied, then joined, the love-entwined couple on stage to add a third member (here was the first occasion on which she moved from the musicians’ platform at the back of the auditorium to the front of the stage).

The gentleness of the Zephyr’s breeze infused ‘Summer’ – a reference to the sonnets that accompanied these concertos, poetry possibly by Vivaldi himself. When the music energised, it reminded us that the basis of this performance was vitality. Rhythms from the OAE were consistently well sprung throughout the evening, and there was real grit to the more outgoing gestures. The way the cascading, rapidly descending scales in the Presto finale each initiated a dancer’s movement was remarkably effective.

And so to ‘Autumn’, with its first movement taken at a remarkably brisk pace. The six dancers’ response was angular, presumably a response to the bucolic, bumpkin dancing to which the accompanying sonnet refers. The anguished dance solo that began this concerto’s central, frozen Adagio molto was one of the most memorable moments of the evening. The finale was the first occasion on which the dancers overtook the musicians in visceral terms – there seemed to be a tepid element. Surprising, as this is one of the most famous movements from the cycle.

Perhaps they had their minds on the futuristic shards of sound that opened ‘Winter’, here appearing more modern than this writer has previously experienced. The soundscape, soon enlivened with more stomping, seemed somehow to link to that of the Russian winter that breaks so memorably into Spring and inspired Stravinsky’s Rite. Dancers shiver in the cold.

As realisations of programme music go, this was astonishing. Never simply on the surface – despite direct links between music, poetry and gesture – this choreography worked on multiple levels to complement and illuminate Vivaldi’s quartet of concertos. Readers can get an idea of what this was like from this video. The musical performance, presumably a conflated one from the various performances, is earmarked for a release on the OAE label. Would it be too much to hope for a DVD? That, surely, would be ideal.

Colin Clarke