Vivaldi L’estro armonico/OAE

L’estro armonico, Op.3

Alison Bury, Kati Debretzeni, Margaret Faultless & Matthew Truscott (violins); Jonathan Manson (cello); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 17 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Approximately translated as “Harmonic Whimsy” or “Harmonic Inspiration”, Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concertos are packed with staggering invention and variety. Anyone who attended this performance by the Orchestra of Age of Enlightenment of the complete set, split into two hour-long concerts on the same evening, will have been left in no doubt as to the fatuousness of Stravinsky’s acerbic remark that Vivaldi merely wrote the same concerto six-hundred times.

Intended specifically for export (at least, according to musicologist Richard Maunder, whose mid-concerts talk flatly contradicted Richard Wigmore’s assertion in the programme note that the concertos would have been performed by the girls of Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà where Vivaldi worked) these twelve concertos caused widespread sensation across Europe following their publication in 1711. The set firmly established Vivaldi as a dazzling master of his art, and is an important milestone in the development of concerto form, then still in its early stages. Scored for eight parts (four violins, viola, cello and continuo), various combinations of the violins take solo roles; even the cello gets the occasional spot in the limelight.

Current thinking, as expostulated by Maunder, is that each part was for a single player, except the specified two-player viola part and the continuo. So it was more of a chamber ensemble than an orchestra which took to the stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall: 10 players in all, each standing throughout apart from the cello and three-strong continuo section, suitably bolstered to suit the venue, of harpsichord, violone (larger than a cello, smaller than a double bass) and theorbo or, for extra springiness, guitar.

The energy and brilliance of the OAE players took hold right from the opening movement of the first concerto, in D minor. The visual element heightened the impact of the lightning exchanges between the four solo violins: it was enthralling to see the rapid-fire phrases being tossed from one to another with such panache. The second movement, a tragic Largo, was marred by some dodgy tuning, but this was evidently just teething trouble, happily overcome for the rest of the evening.

Peerless exponents of period performance, the OAE musicians communicated great love and dedication for these concertos – as well as terrific joy in the music. Not for them the overtly dramatic, visceral approach of some more ‘modern’, especially Italian, groups. From the frosty Adagio of the G minor, the evocative brittleness of which recalls ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons, to the Corelli-like grandeur of the Concerto in F, the thrilling fugal toccata from the D minor, and the bravura cross-fire of the B minor (arranged by no less than J. S. Bach for his concerto for four harpsichords), these lively, captivating performances drew drama from the music itself rather than contriving effects.

The violinists, standing two each side of the central harpsichord, swapped places between each concerto to take turns in the spotlight(s). Given their vast experience, especially of playing together, it was fascinating to note how individual the style of each player was in terms of sound and articulation. Matthew Truscott was beautifully fluid in the lyrical second movement of the D minor, and electrifying in unaccompanied duet passages with Margaret Faultless in the same concerto; Kati Debretzeni gave an ebullient account of one of the most well-known of all Vivaldi’s solo concertos, the A minor.

The whole evening was brought off with infectious good humour. The violinists occasionally lost track of which stand they had left their music on as they swapped places; jokes were made about the over-familiarity of one or two of the concertos to people who lived next door to budding young violinists. The relaxed atmosphere enhanced the overall experience. A few – very few – technical slips reminded us that the players are mortal after all, and that, even today, Vivaldi’s music is full of challenges to stretch even the most experienced musician.

Though published as a collection, it is extremely unlikely that Vivaldi would have expected all twelve concertos to be performed as an entirety. It is just as doubtful whether doing so does the music any favours. Just as wine-tasters cannot assimilate the nuances of different bottles after more than about half-a-dozen sips, so this concert-goer, at least, found the unvaried diet of Vivaldi concertos – though full of diversity within itself – increasingly taste-numbing. This was a great shame, both on behalf of the excellent performances and of the music. But qualms about Vivaldi-overload aside, this was a very enjoyable evening.

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