United Kingdom Keble Early Music Festival  – Vivaldi: Adrian Chandler (director/violin), La Serenissima. Keble College Chapel, Oxford, 21.2.2019. (CR)
Vivaldi – Concerto for 2 oboes in A minor, RV536; Concerto for violin and cello in B-flat major, RV547; Concerto for 2 oboes in D minor, RV535; Concerto for 2 horns in F major, RV538; Concerto for 2 horns in F major, RV539; Concerto for violin and cello in A major, RV546; Concerto per S.A.S.I.S.P.G.M.D.G.S.M.B for violin, 2 oboes, 2 horns, bassoon and cello in F major RV574
Like the many still life paintings of the 17th century with their depictions of culinary, natural, and musical opulence, this programme presented a similar Baroque cornucopia of instrumental display, demonstrating Vivaldi’s ability in writing idiomatically for a range of soloists and integrating more than one of them at once in an orchestral Concerto. Only Telemann rivalled Vivaldi during the Baroque era with a similar talent at writing for such a variety of instruments.
With their leader, Adrian Chandler, La Serenissima gave an infectiously vivacious and stylish account of the seven concertos here – three pairs for the same combination of two instruments, and a final Concerto bringing all the soloists together, covering woodwind, brass, and strings. Initially the very resonant acoustic of the high stone box that is the Chapel of Keble College threatened to engulf the busy, even hyperactive, textures of Vivaldi’s scores, and indeed at times it privileged the cellos and double bass of the continuo section over the higher melodic instruments. But in other passages, La Serenissima exploited the sonic space effectively, with the striking unison melodies of some of the movements’ ritornelli making a dramatic impact, as also the pauses which Vivaldi inserts between some of the phrases, or the whooping horns in the two Concertos for them ricocheting even more robustly than they would otherwise have done. The church acoustic is also, in fact, not inappropriate in these Concertos which Vivaldi likely intended for performance during chapel services at the Ospedale della Pietà where he worked, making use of the effect of the instruments being positioned in different spaces as they perform, as he did in so many of his pieces written for that institution – a device doubtless inspired by the pioneering compositional effects of his Venetian forbears, the Gabrielis and Monteverdi at San Marco, only a little further up the Grand Canal.
Rachel Chaplin and Mark Baigent’s contributions on the solo oboes cut through the sonority of the strings with an alternately yearning and wailing timbre, sometimes more akin to an oboe d’amore. The opening Largo of the unusual (for Vivaldi) and old-fashioned four-movement D minor Concerto was curt but serious in its first phrases, demanding the audience’s attention from the outset of the concert. The middle-movement Largo of the A minor Concert was lyrical and reflective, offsetting the robustly energetic Allegro which followed with maximum contrast.
For the two Concertos pairing violin and cello, Adrian Chandler cultivated a nimble, frenetic energy for the virtuosic passages of the outer movements, along with a resonant, almost strumming effect with Vladimir Waltham for the widely-spaced arpeggio figures of their solo episodes, contrasting with a more ethereal, silvery tone for the slower movements, perhaps in deference to the fact that Vivaldi specified that the lower solo part could also be taken by the viola da gamba, an instrument sometimes used at the Pietà in his time, but otherwise very rare in Italy by then.
In the double horn Concertos, Anneke Scott and Jocelyn Lightfoot negotiated the excitable solo parts well, expressing a bounding joy in the fast movements. RV539 calls for a higher tessitura from the soloists than the other Concerto, and while they achieved a more sustained and burnished tone for that, it was sometimes also a little insecure, understandable given the difficulty of attaining the notes at such a register.
Nobody knows for sure why the multi-instrument Concerto RV574 has the bizarre name that it carries; suggestions have been proposed, but as the noted Vivaldi expert Michael Talbot has argued, it is just as possible that the witty-minded composer was taking a swipe at a certain literary affection in the18th century for abbreviations. Either way it elicited a characteristically dramatic performance from La Serenissima, notable for the vigorous interplay effected between the ritornelli and solo episodes of the first movement; alternating groups of forte and piano chords which were convincingly sustained throughout the Adagio; and concluding with what, at first, seemed like a deceptively simple and stately minuet, but turning into a volatile escapade once the solo violin took off. In all, La Serenissima made as good a case as any for the fertile and versatile imagination with which Vivaldi invested the basic format of the Concerto which would become one of the staple genres of Western Classical music.