Musical Excellence from The English Concert at Wigmore Hall

13/06/2019

Various composers, Orpheus of Princes: The English Concert / Harry Bicket (director/harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.6.2019. (AK)

Handel –  Overture-Suite from Rodrigo HWV 5
Legrenzi –  Sonata for four violins Op. 10, No.1 (La Cetra)
Corelli –  Concerto Grosso in D Op. 6, No. 4
Vivaldi – Concerto for two violins in D minor Op.3, No.11 RV 565 (L’estro armonico); Concerto for four violins in B minor Op.3, No. 10   RV 580 (L’estro armonico)
Scarlatti – Introduzione all Oratorio Cain, overo il primo omicidio
Vinaccesi – Sonata IV
Marcello – Oboe concerto in D minor 

The title of the concert, Orpheus of Princes, refers to the Grand Prince Ferdinando of Tuscany (1663-1713), a member of the Medici dynasty and a great patron of the arts. According to the programme notes to this concert, he commissioned as well as invited musicians like Legrenzi, Scarlatti and Marcello while Handel opted to visit Florence and Vivaldi dedicated his four-violin concerto to the Prince. However, when few months ago I briefly looked at the Orpheus of Princes title of the concert, I assumed music from the Orfeo/Orpheus repertoire. I wonder if others in the audience also drew the wrong conclusion.

From the musical point of view, for me the concert was perfect from the first note to the last. Tempi felt just right throughout, ensemble playing was exemplary, virtuosity balanced sensitivity and intonation was fine. The dedication and integrity of the players impressed me. As we witnessed in the interval, they tuned their instruments carefully, string by string and player to player. More often than not, players on concert stages as well as in opera pits tune their instruments in a big din, often resulting in performances with questionable intonation. The English Concert is a shining example of what should be done

On paper the programme looked a bit like too much of the same. In reality, there was variety both in content and in interpretation. In the Handel Overture the elegant oboe solo of the Sarabande contrasted the deliciously exaggerated echoes of the subsequent witty Matelot and the fiery presentation of implied stage business in the Bouree. Chamber pieces and larger ensembles alternated; the Legrenzi and Vinaccesi sonatas (with just four and two violins with continuo respectively) created mid-balance before and after the interval. The principle of balance was also evident in the choice of instrumental concertos (Vivaldi, Marcello) and orchestral pieces (Handel, Corelli and Scarlatti). 

Arguable, the concert was a showcase for leader Nadja Zwiener. She had several virtuoso solos within most of the pieces which she delivered with impressive skills and discipline. Katharina Spreckelsen’s virtuoso performance of the Marcello oboe concerto was rewarded by huge audience appreciation. I was particularly fascinated by cellist Jonathan Byers both as a soloist and a chamber musician/continuo player. Although not indicated in the programme notes, the Op.3 Nos.10 and 11 Vivaldi concertos are in fact concertos for violins and violoncello. (In his critical edition of 2013, Talbot presents No.10 as ‘per quattro violini e violoncello soli’, No.11 as ‘per due violini e violoncello soli’). The Corelli Concerto Grosso also sets a two-violin and cello solo group against the larger ensemble. Byers was rock solid, virtuoso, sensitive and without sneaking in a cello spike (which I see more often than I would like in baroque groups).

I don’t understand the rationale for having the upper string players standing. There must have been issues of space and other elements considered but the effect was a little bit comical on account of the different sizes of the players. Some of the players are very tall and some rather short: as very tall and very short players often stood next to each other, I could not help thinking that the sound was produced from literally different levels.

I am also puzzled about why conductor Harry Bicket conducted the chamber sonatas of Legrenzi and Vinaccesi. I hasten to add that I liked his interpretations. However, I cannot help thinking that the excellent players (especially in the Vinaccesi for only two violins and continuo) could have created even more of a chamber music ambience without a conductor.

The actual staging caused problems of visibility, in particular in Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins. The soloists were lined up next and behind the harpsichord which was centre stage throughout the evening. Where I sat, and probably from most other seats, excellent violinist Kinga Ujszaszi (a short lady) playing the fourth violin solo from behind the harpsichord could be heard but not seen at all. Yet, at the same time, tutti players at the side were clearly seen. (Another irritation in connection with Kinga Ujszaszi is her name consistently – that is all three times – was misspelled in the programme notes. The English version should be Ujszaszi, the Hungarian original is Újszászi. However, she appeared in the programme notes as Ujszázsi.)

I continue to be puzzled by double bass terminology in programme notes provided by excellent baroque ensembles. For the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (review click here), the ’double bass was supplied and tuned by Tim Amherst’ yet it seemed to me as a five-stringed fretted violone. In the English Concert programme the player is listed as on double bass, yet I saw a fretted instrument which arguably should be called a violone.

The bottom line is that musically the concert was excellent. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27th June.

Agnes Kory

For more about The English Concert click here.

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