Musically Ravishing Seasons Led by Violinist Emma McGrath

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni: Emma McGrath (violin and leader), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 13.12.2013 (BJ)

 Counting her first performance here in 2011 of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and a second one of those picturesque concertos last spring, the Seattle audience has now had twelve Seasons from Emma McGrath. You might think that twelve is rather a lot, given that even just Four Seasons are regarded in some quarters as more than enough of a good thing—but my pleasure in hearing them played by the Seattle Symphony’s associate concertmaster has been in no way diminished by repetition.

Her treatment of this music seems as fresh as ever, and her actual playing at Friday’s concert in the orchestra’s informal “[untuxed]” series was if anything even more gorgeous than before. On a modern instrument, while stylishly eschewing anachronistic vibrato—and with remarkably assured authority prevailing on the string colleagues accompanying her to do the same—she was nevertheless able to avoid any of the harshness that afflicts the playing of the less talented members of the period-instrument fraternity.

McGrath’s silvery tone and pinpoint precision of technique are ideally suited to music of the baroque period. The picture she painted in the slow movement of the “Winter” concerto, of luxuriating peacefully in front of the fire while the rain plashes down pizzicato outside, was at once dramatically apt and musically ravishing.

Yet, authentic in the true sense of that much misused word though this performance was, it never degenerated into merely generic baroquerie. If you look at the four concertos’ consistent three-movement layout, and at the tempo markings of the constituent movements, you might conclude that these are works of purely conventional Italian baroque design. But McGrath’s fearless exploitation of the contrast that lies just below the traditional-seeming surface reveals and brings to vibrant life the sheer, unprecedented, almost ornery imagination Vivaldi brought to an opus that, if not necessarily the greatest of his works, is certainly a masterpiece for the ages. In this performance, its structures emerged, despite the standard three-movement layout, as not remotely similar to anything his contemporaries were writing in Italy or anywhere else in Europe, and the same can be said of its dramatic, even theatrical, impact.

All of this effect, moreover, was intensified by the small size of the forces gathered on stage: just fifteen strings (including the soloist) and harpsichord. It is striking how much more vivid baroque music sounds, even in a hall several times the size of the rooms it was written for, when expertly played by a small ensemble whether of period or of modern instruments, than under the smoother, and more homogenizing effect of a large orchestral string complement.

The soloist’s light-hearted introductory conversation with Seattle Symphony bass-player Jonathan Green, illustrated by snippets played by orchestra members, added to the evening’s pleasures.

Bernard Jacobson


This review appeared also in the Seattle Times.

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