A Run–Through the Barococo

United StatesUnited States Handel, Vivaldi, Porpora: Veronica Cangemi (soprano), Jérôme Pernoo (cello), Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi (director and violin), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York 6.3.2013 (SSM)

Handel: Overture to Serse
Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fù from Serse
Vivaldi: Gelosia, tu già rendi l’alma mia, from Ottone in Villa
Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Cello, from L’estro armonico Zeffiretti che sussurate, from Ercole su’l Termodonte
Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos
Se mai senti spirarti sul volto, from Catone in Utica
Popora: Concerto in G Major for Cello
Vivaldi: Siam navi all’onde algenti, from L’Olimpiade

In the mid-twentieth century, Barococo became associated with DeKoven, a New York radio announcer who used the term in a positive context. His ideal Barococo composer was Vivaldi or Albinoni: the outer movements of their concerti met DeKoven’s criteria of being fast, strongly rhythmic and short. He was the equivalent of a pop-music deejay who plays only “oldies but goodies.” There were few recordings in the Barococo style when DeKoven started broadcasting, but a brief surge of interest in Baroque music arrived with the Beatles and their use of Baroque-style backgrounds in “A Day in the Life” and “Penny Lane.” The Swingle Singers’ a capella group, Wendy Carlos’s “Switched-On Bach” and Joshua Rifkin’s “The Baroque Beatles Book” all gave impetuous to the popularization of Baroque music.

DeKoven would have loved the works on this program. He would have skipped the slower pieces and played the outer movements of the Vivaldi concerti and the Popora Cello Concerto over and over. The faster the tempo, the louder the fortes, the longer the crescendos, the more laudatory his praise would have been. No one is certain how fast these movements were played originally, but we do know that there is no marking in Baroque scores for crescendos: crescendos and decrescendos were first used in the mid-eighteenth century. Unwarranted and sudden changes from pp to ff are common Barococo trademarks, and both the instrumentalists and the singer Veronica Cangemi were guilty of these exaggerated gestures.

Vivaldi’s vocal output was mammoth and, with the revival of interest in his operas, we are seeing a more mature style than in his instrumental music. The quality of his approximately forty-five operas, eighty pasticcios and one hundred stray arias vary: Il Giustino and Arsilda contain little more than instrumental music with the voice as a solo instrument, often simply doubling the instrumental accompaniment. But there are dozens (hundreds?) of arias that are as exciting and powerful as any written by Handel. Bajazet, Motezuma and Ercole su’l Termodonte are filled with glorious music from start to finish.

Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his group have been recording the complete collection of Vivaldi manuscripts found in the Library of Turin. While these have been highly praised, comparisons with recent recordings by Fabio Biondi and Alan Curtis show Spinosi oblivious to the subtleties of the music. This was also true with the Zankel Hall performance. For the sake of Ms. Cangemi, whose voice barely kept up with the instruments, Spinosi might have slowed down. Although her singing was technically accurate, it sounded strained. Overly dramatic gestures distracted from the performance rather than enhancing it, high notes were screamed and melismas were stretched out to a ludicrous length. Just a quick listen to Vivica Genaux, Roberta Invernizzi or Patricia Ciofi makes this clear.

There were some successful moments, mainly from the virtuoso cellist Jérôme Pernoo who demonstrated his remarkable ability. The almost unknown cello concerto by Porpora was the highlight of the evening. Pernoo played at a nearly impossible speed, at times reaching down almost to the bridge to bring out the instrument’s highest notes. Popora has only recently been revived and is mostly known for his arias, many of which were “borrowed” by Vivaldi for his own operas or used to fill his many pastiches. If Porpora’s talents, as evinced in this cello concerto, are also present in his other instrumental works, they are certainly worth exploring.

The one encore, Vivaldi’s “Agitata da due venti” from Griselda ˗ spine-tingling when sung by Cecilia Bartoli ˗ fell flat for this reviewer.

Stan Metzger