In Akron, compelling Vivaldi from Apollo’s Fire

United StatesUnited States ‘Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Rediscovered’: Alan Choo, Olivier Brault, and Carrie Krause (violins), René Schiffer and Ezra Seltzer (cellos), Kathie Stewart (traverse flute), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Bath Church, Akron, Ohio, 1.10.2019. (MSJ)

Uccellini (arr. Sorrell) – La Bergamasca

VivaldiThe Four Seasons, Op.8, Nos. 1-4; Double Cello Concerto in G minor, RV 531; Flute Concerto in D, RV 428, ‘Il Gardellino’; (arr. Sorrell) – La Folia

While Apollo’s Fire is often a forum for discovery of little-known pieces of baroque music, it also is a compelling frame for rediscovery of the familiar. Such an event was held to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ensemble’s Akron residency.

Music director Jeannette Sorrell preceded each of the concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with a quick demonstration of its storytelling, via live examples played by the orchestra. These outlines, plus Vivaldi’s original sonnets translated in the program, joined with Sorrell’s vivid approach to the pictorial elements to make these familiar works seem freshly minted, full of astonishing incident. Sorrell is part of a new movement in early music, pushing past shock value toward a less dogmatic flexibility.

Alan Choo served as poetic soloist for the ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ Concertos, bending tempos and exploring Vivaldi’s scene painting in breathtaking fashion. Thinking back to square and unimaginative performances of the opening of the ‘Spring’ Concerto (which I grew up on), it was an absolute relief to hear Choo and Apollo’s Fire find such freedom. The opening chorus of birds had exhilarating ebb and flow. In the slow movement, the dog-bark violas were vividly present without being overbearing — not one of those edgy, Stravinskian readings that were all the rage about ten years ago. In the dance-like finale, where the peasant merrymaking was intensified by the cellos and bass sliding up to their pedal points, Sorrell made it clear once and for all that Vivaldi was evoking bagpipes.

In the brilliant overall shaping of first movement of ‘Summer’, each return of the heat-weary ritornello grew slightly faster, until the tension exploded in the final squall. In between those episodes, Choo’s solo role alternated between fierce energy (the cuckoo), awestruck wonder (the goldfinch calls), and anxious distress (the crying shepherd). The first movement’s final note was held onto and dissipated, leading without pause into the tense thunder rumbles of the second, and the storm in the finale was vigorous and concentrated.

The grand Olivier Brault was featured in the two remaining seasons. Brault, who served as concertmaster of Apollo’s Fire for seven years, is a welcome return visitor who brings a sense of occasion to everything he performs. He was particularly entertaining in the first movement of ‘Autumn’, where he took Vivaldi as his word and made the solo pop off the page as the embodiment of an inebriated peasant. Passages that seem pointlessly bizarre when done without inflection here made perfect sense as the drunk’s staggering, boasting, and — finally — passing out came to life.

With so much that was so right, Sorrell made a rare misstep in the ‘Autumn’ slow movement, depicting sleeping drunkards. (It charts a fascinating chord progression that evidently bewitched Vivaldi himself, because he reused this movement in other works.) When performed minimally, it can cast a spell so intense that the listener hardly dares to breathe. Here, though, the spell was broken by an endless cascade of busy harpsichord arpeggios. Not even a drunk could sleep through that!

The finale’s hunt was taken in two tiers of tempos: the solos fast, and the ritornello a bit stubbornly held back. Brault’s portrayal of the fleeing fox was brilliant. The ‘Winter’ Concerto was equally vivid — with chattering teeth and stamping feet brought into crisp focus — while the dripping rain slow movement was full of warmth, illuminated by Brault’s ornamentation.

René Schiffer and Ezra Seltzer were compelling soloists in Vivaldi’s Double Cello Concerto. Schiffer is a master, who starts with an essentially mellow timbre, then makes the instrument jump through every hoop imaginable — a fearless performer, taking the cello to the edge of what it can do. Seltzer was a spectacular partner, whose tone is much more incisive than Schiffer’s, yet scaled back to interweave with Schiffer’s more autumnal sound. The conversational quality of the soloists’ exchanges made this concerto just as compelling as the evening’s other offerings.

In the goldfinch-inspired Flute Concerto, Kathie Stewart brought the same narrative quality, with a vivid blend of naturalism and freedom from metronomic bar lines. While the flauto traverso is a very soft instrument, Stewart found a wealth of different dynamics within its narrow compass and shaped her solos accordingly.

The program opened and closed with arrangements by Sorrell, staring with a limber dance by Uccellini. As an exciting close, the ensemble’s party piece, La Folia, featured Brault and Carrie Krause as bold soloists.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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