Cultural inheritance and crosscurrents from Sollima and il Pomo d’Oro at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Trad/Cypriot, Sollima, Vivaldi: Giovanni Sollima (cello), Federico Guglielmo (violin), il Pomo d’Oro. Wigmore Hall, London, 14.3.2023. (CS)

Giovanni Sollima

Trad/Cypriot – ‘Kartsilamades’ (I ballo Karsilama) (arr. Sollima)
AnonAria del Tasso, ‘Lieto ti prendo e poi’ (arr. Tartini)
Giovanni SollimaIl Concerto Perduto (2021)
Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto for violin and cello in B flat, RV547
Trad/ArbëreshMoj e Bukura More (pub. 1708, arr. Sollima)
Giovanni SollimaMoghul (2018)
Trad/Cypriot – ‘Kartsilamades’ (II ballo Karsilama); ‘Kartsilamades’ (III ballo Karsilama) (arr. Sollima)
Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto for violin and cello in F, RV544, ‘Il Proteo, ò sia Il Mondo al rovescio’; Violin Concerto in D, RV208 ‘Grosso Mogul’ (Recitativo. Grave)
Giovanni Sollima – ‘The Family Tree’ (from When We Were Trees) (2007)

This Wigmore Hall concert by the Sicilian cellist and composer, Giovanni Sollima, and il Pomo d’Oro – the latter are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year – was all about cultural inheritance, crosscurrents and exchange.  Holding the strands of the programme together was eighteenth-century Venice which, though by then in decline and no longer the imperial power it had once been, was still a cultural force which attracted musicians and artists from Italy, Europe and beyond.  Many arrived from Venetian holdings on the Italian mainland and from its overseas possessions in the East – hoping to take advantage of the opportunities that La Serenissima offered in music, opera, theatre and publishing.  And, intertwining old and new, Sollima paid homage to the city’s most well-known native composer, Antonio Vivaldi, whose concertos, many written for the astonishingly talented girls at the Ospedale della Pietà, marked a turning-point in the development of the form and have inspired Sollima’s own compositional conversations with the past.

If Thomas Dunford is often referred to as the Eric Clapton of the lute, then Sollima has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the cello.  His showmanship is certainly the equal of his musicianship, the visual element of his performance as striking as the aural.  When playing, his head would lean back, eyes closed, expression rapt; when listening to his musical colleagues his body bristled with energy as if transmitting vibrancy to the ensemble; then he would hunch over his celli, sawing at double-stops with almost demonic fury, scampering up and down the fingerboard like a man possessed, or lurching through a glissando with exuberant glee.  If il Pomo d’Oro, led with urbanity by violinist Federico Guglielmo, didn’t match their soloist for drama and display, then they provided a counterweight of stylish elegance and precision to Sollima’s mercurial music-making which ranged from rhapsody to riff, from savagery to soulfulness to sweetness.  My only quibble was that the ensemble was rather too small to provide the necessary depth of tone.

Among the 500-plus concertos that Vivaldi composed, 29 were for solo cello (two of which are lost – more on this below …), an instrument which was in its infancy at the time – indeed, none of the concertos were published during his lifetime – but whose potential Vivaldi was evidently keen to explore and exploit.  But, it was two of the composer’s works for violin and cello that we heard here and which confirmed that these works offer plenty of technical challenges for the modern-day performer.  Sharply defined arpeggios and racing parallel passage work characterised the Allegro of the Concerto for violin and cello in B-flat RV547, the sprinting momentum easing when the rhythmic diversity relaxed into sleek sequences.  Guglielmo and Sollima closed the movement with a dashing cadential flourish.  In the short Andante the easeful melodism was given lift by some lovely theorbo motifs and textures (Gianluca Geremia), while the soloists whipped up a vibrant dance in the Allegro molto, the syncopations heightened by the soloists’ sparkling passagework.

The Concerto for violin and cello in F, RV544 is titled ‘Il Proteo, ò sia Il Mondo al rovescio’, invoking a then popular metaphor, the mundus inversus, and the mythological shape-shifting sea god.  So, what is a musical ‘protean upside-down world’?  Well, the obvious inversion is the reversal of the solo parts, which are each written in the conventional clef of the other instrument.  (Each player can play either part, provided that the violinist transposes the cello part up an octave.)  And, Vivaldi also reverses the three-movement form, opening with a vivacious dance and closing with a ‘first-movement’ ritornello structure.  After a vibrant imitative, canonic opening, Guglielmo and Sollima brought infectious joy to their exchanges in the opening Allegro, and the ensemble’s textural and dynamic contrasts enlivened the interplay.  The low strings and theorbo provided lovely support for the soloists in the Largo, while in the concluding Allegro there was some razor-sharp articulation, Sollima’s bowing brilliantly energised and Guglielmo’s fiddling fingers on fire.

Guglielmo also played the Recitativo and Grave from Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D, RV208, known as ‘Grosso Mogul’ which may have been written for performance during Vivaldi’s opera on the subject of India’s Mogul, Agrippo.  The violinist took the opportunity for improvisational fancy in the Recitativo, playing with sweet delicacy and refinement.  Sollima’s Moghul draws inspiration from the exotic theme of the violin concerto and a recently discovered flute concerto titled Il gran mogul.  Richly expressive, from quiet beginnings the work expanded into a feast of colour, rhythm and texture, Sollima digging gutsily into his strings, then making his cello sing impassionedly, employing a wide, full vibrato.  Movement and stillness alternated effectively, the modality and mystery of the latter beautifully enhanced by the theorbo’s twitchings.

The cellist-composer’s three-movement Il Concerto Perduto draws material from a part for viola which is the only extant fragment of Vivaldi’s incomplete Cello Concerto in E minor, RV787.  The opening movement was both eloquent and energised – with Sollima indulging in more exuberant glissandi – while the strings’ pizzicato at the start of the Andante had a lovely warmth, before the cello’s mournful, lyrical solo.  The transitions between the contrasting material were persuasive.  The Allegro molto really was molto, rousing and raucous at times though a bigger ensemble would have done full justice to its swashbuckling panache.

The concert closed with Sollima’s ‘The Family Tree’, one of the six movements which form When we were Trees, but earlier we also heard Sollima’s arrangements of traditional music, the fiddlers’ ‘guitar-strumming’ at the start of the Cypriot ‘Kartsilamades’ getting the concert underway and inspiring soulful melodising from Sollima and a wide range of expressive modes, from grief to joy.  Again, though, I felt this earthy folk-dance from Cyprus – which Venice annexed in the 1480s – needed more weight in the bass and a more percussive thwack.  In the Albanian song, Moj e bukura More (1708), a traveller expresses longing for the beautiful island of Morea (the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece), which was under Venetian rule from 1684 to 1715.  Sollima conjured a feast of tone colours, plunging into pizzicatos, climbing to the heights of the fingerboard with Romantic bravura, conjuring ornamental flourishes with improvisatory flair, finding intense sentiment before whipping up a wild dance and concluding with some glissandi yelps!  This was as much theatre as music.

It evidently made a dramatic impression on the Wigmore Hall audience, too.  The programme was fairly short, which gave Sollima, ever the showman, the opportunity to offer five encores, reprising several of the works heard earlier – there were no complaints from the listeners in the Hall who rose to their feet in applause.

Claire Seymour

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