Viktoria Mullova & il Giardino Armonico

Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6/6
Violin Concerto in C, RV187
Giuseppe Sammartini
Flute Concerto in F
Concerto in B minor for four violins and cello, RV580
G Sammartini
Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op.5/4
Violin Concerto in D, RV208 (Grosso Mogul)

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini (recorder)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As a venue for baroque music there is something distinctly unwelcoming about the Barbican. Besides its size, the very neutrality of the place – devoid of any sense of contact with the past – may be part of the reason for the lack of atmosphere. Nevertheless, tempted by Vivaldi, Viktoria Mullova and the Italian ‘authentic’ band il Giardino Armonico, a gratifyingly large audience turned out. Mullova has recently recorded a CD of five Vivaldi concertos with this group, a project which she herself funded in part; three of the recorded concertos featured on the Barbican programme, with individual movements from the remaining two concertos as encores.

If an evening devoted to Vivaldi violin concertos seems too much of a good thing, the programme was leavened by a Handel Concerto Grosso and two pieces by Giuseppe Sammartini, the elder brother of the more famous Giovanni Battista. Giuseppe (1695-1750) settled in London, playing in Handel’s orchestra and becoming music master to the Princess of Wales and her children. On this occasion we heard a Flute Concerto (played for some reason on a recorder by il Giardino’s director, Giovanni Antonini) and a Concerto Grosso, an early instance of ‘Sturm und Drang’ and which opens with a movement whose violent agitation and pregnant pauses remind one of CPE Bach; its beautiful Andantino brought a finely played violin solo from Stefano Barneschi.

The ‘flute’ concerto was less satisfactory. Whilst eighteenth-century composers were pragmatic regarding performing music on different instruments, here one could not help feeling that a baroque flute would have made more impact than a recorder. Also, both as conductor and soloist, Antonini does tend to double- dot every I and double-cross every T, with over-manicured results.

The three Vivaldi concertos were carefully graduated so as to provide the maximum variety; just as well since none of the three pieces in the first half had exactly set the heather alight, mainly due to Antonini’s over-fussy direction rather than il Giardino’s playing, which was uniformly excellent.

Fortunately, things moved up several notches for the second half. With the full, 17-strong band (including bassoon, lute and harpsichord), the antiphonal music of the Vivaldi four-violin concerto made quite an impact and was despatched with relish by the soloists, including Mullova. After the Sammartini Concerto Grosso, Mullova was at full stretch in the ‘Grosso Mogul’, one of the grandest of Vivaldi’s violin concertos, music that demands improvisatory abandon and confidence; it received both from Mullova: the leap to fiddle music as heard from folk-violinists in the Appalachians or from Gypsy performers seemed but a small one.

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