Venice Baroque Orchestra: When Wild Works

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi, Veracini, Porpora, Geminiani: Soloists, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon, (director), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 6.2.2013. (SSM)

Vivaldi: Sinfonia from La Senna Festeggiante, RV 693; Concerto in G Minor for Flute and Strings,RV 439, “La notte”; Concerto in F Major for Bassoon and Strings, RV 488; Concerto in C Major for Flautino and Strings, RV 443
Francesco Maria Veracini: Overture in G Minor for Two Oboes, Bassoon and Strings
Nicola Porpora: Concerto in G Major for Cello and Strings
Francesco Geminiani: Concerto Grosso in D Minor (after Corelli’s Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12, “Folia”)


Vivaldi: Allegro from Concerto in D Major for Violin, RV 212, “Fatto per la Solennità della San Lingua di San Antonio in Padua”
Telemann: Presto from Concerto for Flute and Recorder in E Minor, TWV 52: e1

From Mozart’s adaptation of Handel’s Messiah to the rediscovery of J. S. Bach by Mendelssohn in the 1820s through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, performances of Baroque music were based on the assumption that this was music that somehow needed to be “corrected.” Sir Thomas Beecham’s notorious re-orchestrations of Baroque composers such as Handel and Leopold Stokowski’s overblown transcriptions of Bach were done to make this music palatable to their audiences.

It wasn’t until the 1970s with the performances of Bach’s cantatas by Nicholas Harnoncourt and the symphonies of Mozart by Christopher Hogwood that a reaction to this approach began to take hold. The cries of the proponents of the school of historically informed performance (HIP) were “To the Text!” Concerts and recordings of Baroque music had to be historically correct. The instruments needed to be either original or accurate replicas, tuned to a pitch a half step lower than today’s. Every aspect, from the number of instrumentalists and chorus members to positions on stage to the absence of vibrato and use of notes inégales,were to be authentic.

The only problem with following these rules is that there was and is much disagreement as to what was really “authentic.” How many chorus members were there in Bach’s performances of the Mass in B Minor (if in fact he did perform it in his lifetime)? Was it one voice per part as argued by Joshua Rifkin and his supporters? Did the string players at that time bow completely vibrato-less as Roger Norrington insisted? What was the correct tuning, considering historical confirmations of ranges running from below A=400hz to A=480hz? (Today’s traditional instruments are standardized as A=440hz and Baroque instruments generally at A=415hz.) As for the question of notes inégales, Wikopedia will give you that answer in seven thousand words!

So where in the dialectic process are we now? Have we reached a kind of synthesis where we all agree on some common performance rules? No, but we’re probably close. We may never again accept a performance on the order of Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Diverse Instruments in which most of the Baroque instruments are replaced by modern-day descendents. But it is now more acceptable for non-period orchestras to play Baroque music if they at least attempt to follow some of the rules regarding reduced vibrato, fewer instruments per part and basso continuo on the harpsichord instead of piano. The current freedom from the strict style requirements expected from HIP groups has given way to a range of performance practice from conservative groups like The Academy of Ancient Music (less conservative now under the baton of Richard Egarr than with his predecessor, Andrew Manze) to the insanity of Red Priest. Yet a true synthesis that agrees on standards for all has yet to occur.

This leads us to the performance by Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Yes, they have original instruments pitched at A=415hz and use notes inégales,one instrument per part (except for the strings) and little vibrato. They have all the prerequisites needed for a HIP, right? Wrong! The one detail not followed, a major one, is that the players pretty much ignore the text, adding sforzandos, crescendos and accelerandos that are nowhere to be found in the composers’ scores. The opening sinfonia from Vivaldi’s serenata La Senna Festeggante has notations by Vivaldi himself, some of which were not followed.

Marcon is a Baroque scholar and was involved with reconstructing and performing the recently discovered serenata, Andromeda Liberato. So what is his justification for these broad interpretations? In an interview, he states the following:

In Italian music, especially Vivaldi, because the music is not so rich harmonically and so on, it has to be treated differently. We know from documents of the time that Vivaldi played with a lot of colors and dynamics, and that is what we try to do, too. Interpreting Italian music means almost that you are manipulating what is written. We play what is written, of course – we don’t change a single note. But we add so much that the piece almost sounds new.

The qualities that made this concert succeed in spite of its wildness were the sparkling freshness and the enthusiasm of all the members, and these traits make the Venice Baroque Orchestra stand out from other equally skilled groups. While the renowned Il Giardino Armonico under the direction of Giovanni Antonnini has played here as well, their wildness was, well, wild. Anna Fusek performed the same C-major concerto for flautino as Antonnini did in his appearance, but her playing was spirited and invigorating while Antonnini’s was shallow and stale.

The rarely performed opening sinfonia from the wonderful but little-heard serenata La Senna Festeggiante brought out parts of the score I’ve never heard, in particular the flautino in the first movement. In the second movement Marcon changed emphasis from the string instrumental line to the cello which imaginatively refreshed the brief but tender Andante.

Although the famous flute concerto,”La notte,” was played immaculately by Michele Favaro, the bassoon concerto with its dark coloring overshadowed the former. The keyless bassoon was played by one of several multi-talented musicians, Giulia Genini, who also plays the alto recorder.

After the intermission the group performed a work by a contemporary of Vivaldi, Francesco Maria Veracini’s Overture in G Minor – a work and a composer unknown to me – which was well constructed and beautifully performed. Might some group revive this composer, as Reinhold Goebel and the Musica Antiqua Köln did with Johann David Heinichen in the mid 1990s?

Nicola Popora’s concerto for cello was another new one for me. He has been part of the recent revival of interest in Baroque opera, and his arias are often found “borrowed” by his fellow Venetian Vivaldi in the latter’s operas and pastiches. Much of Porpora’s music was written for the renowned castrato, Farinelli. The cellist in this performance, Daniele Bovo, succeeded in a virtuosic rendition that demanded as much dexterity on the cello as Popora demanded of Farenelli’s voice.

Geminiani’s Variations on “La Folia” after Corelli are in fact variations on variations and one of many versions written by composers going as far back as the sixteenth century. Corelli’s were written for violin and basso continuo, C. P. E. Bach’s for keyboard and there is even one written by Gregorio Paniagua in 1980 that has, among other instruments, tablas, sitars and drums. The Venice Baroque Orchestra tossed off these variations with confidence and aplomb.

The first encore, the Allegro from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for Violin, RV 212, is rarely played and Marcon explained to the audience that they would realize why. Gianpiero Zanocco, listed as the sixth violinist of the seven on stage, breathtakingly performed the almost impossibly difficult violin part which requires a technique few violinists possess.

Stan Metzger