Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Freshly Rendered

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi and Handel: Emma McGrath (violin and leader), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 8.3.2013 (BJ)

Vivaldi: Concerto for Strings in G major, RV 151, “Alla rustica”
Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, No. 3 in E minor; No. 2 in F major
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Last time the Seattle Symphony’s associate concertmaster, Emma McGrath, played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in February 2011, the conducting was in the hands of the excellent Stephen Stubbs. This time around, nattily attired in a red dress perhaps in tribute to Vivaldi’s sobriquet, “the Red Priest,” she was herself responsible for directing the ensemble, and the result was no less satisfying.

You may think it perverse (and reminiscent of what Barry Glassner in his iconoclastic book The Gospel of Food stigmatizes as the “gospel of naught—the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks”) if I focus my discussion of the performance on praising the almost total absence of vibrato in the playing of the soloist and her orchestral colleagues. But vibrato is a resource that it’s very hard for modern string-players to school themselves to do without. It redounds greatly to Ms McGrath’s credit that the discipline required for “straight” playing was in evidence throughout Vivaldi’s four picturesque concertos, and the result challenged comparison with the best efforts of several superb Italian groups that have played and recorded this music on period instruments.

Played with such wonderful vividness, a work that we are sometimes tempted to regard as an overfamiliar old chestnut emerged with its colors, its textures, and its imagination freshly refurbished, rather like an old-master painting after skillful restoration. It made a fine second half to a concert that had begun with the composer’s little G-major Concerto, RV 151, for strings, “Alla rustica.”

In between, two concerti grossi from Handel’s great Opus 6, No. 3 in E minor and No. 2 in F major, provided well-judged contrast. These also were played with enormous élan, telling contributions coming from second violinist Kathleen Boyer and principal cellist Efe Baltacigil alongside Ms McGrath in the concertino, from guest oboist Dan Williams, from bassoonist Paul Rafanelli, and from Joseph Adam on the harpsichord.

Bernard Jacobson