Prom 7: Baroque Doubles

Concerto in D for two violins, RV513

Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op 3/2

Concerto in D-minor for two violins, RV514

Radamisto – Passacaglia

Concerto in A-minor for two oboes, RV536

Concerto Grosso No. 5 in D-minor (after Scarlatti)

Concerto in D-minor for two violins, BWV1043

Nicola Benedetti, Kati Debretzeni, Rudolfo Richter & Matthew Truscott (violins), Katharina Spreckelsen & Sarah Humphrys (oboes)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Jonathan Cohen (director & harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 September, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Following the sad news of the death of her double bass-playing father, Alina Ibragimova withdrew from this concert, necessitating a few changes to the programme and Nicola Benedetti to step in as the principal violinist. It focussed on the particularly Baroque genre of the concerto for multiple solo instruments – a phenomenon rarely taken up by composers in subsequent generations. The climax of the programme featured perhaps the most famous of all such works, Bach’s Concerto for two violins, often known by performers simply as ‘the Bach double’. The fleet-footed pace set by Jonathan Cohen and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the first movement marked this as a bustling, no-nonsense account of the work, letting its musical complexities speak for themselves, and Benedetti and Matthew Truscott in the solo parts to step forwards and perform with a degree more introspection and intensity. Particularly in the otherwise fairly brisk Largo, they held on expressively to the intertwining solo lines without seeming to stand at odds with the general thrust of the music.

It is probably not widely appreciated that, amongst Vivaldi’s many hundreds of concertos, are more than two dozen for a pair of violins. They are generally less contrapuntal than Bach’s example, tending to spotlight the virtuosic flights of the first violinist (surely taken by Vivaldi himself) whilst the second imitates or follows in parallel chains of thirds. Nonetheless – and despite the dismissal his output often receives – these concertos require a certain dash and sparkle in their execution which they received here in the able hands of Benedetti, followed deferentially by Rudolfo Richter in RV513 but more assertively by Kati Debretzeni in RV514. Cohen led the OAE in quite broad and open accounts of both Concertos’ opening movements, revealed an exquisite emotional depth in the slow movements (for which Vivaldi is often not given due credit) with brooding slides between some of the soloists’ notes in RV513, and held back until the finales to launch the vigour and boisterousness more readily associated with this composer’s style.

Despite the plethora of concertos for up to four violins by Vivaldi, he was tireless in also exploring the possibilities offered by the timbres of an array of other instruments, whether alone or in combination. The oboe was one of those, and there are a few examples for two. Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys played the filigree lines of RV536 lithely, etching precise melismas which balanced well over against the OAE’s playing, and paralleling the vivid contrast between soloists and orchestra in the double violin concertos as performed by their colleagues.

In Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 3/2, solo instruments are not specified as such from the beginning or set in opposition to the orchestra, but rather emerge periodically during intervening episodes, particularly the two oboes in this instance (a favourite instrument of the composer’s). The contributions of Spreckelsen and Humphrys were delectable and well placed within the overall instrumental ensemble, very much an intrinsic part of it, rather than battling against it, as though chattering away with old friends. In the charming Passacaglia from the composer’s opera Radamisto, the oboes were more sensuously embedded within the buoyant triple-time texture cultivated by the OAE for this dance with its repeated harmonic pattern. 

Newcastle-based Charles Avison intriguingly crafted a series of Concerti Grossi from a selection of the keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Despite necessarily dampening down the flights of fancy that are idiomatic for a harpsichord and adapting the binary form of those sonatas into more expansive concerto-form movements, Avison’s results are still convincing. The OAE certainly brought out the robust Iberian inspiration of Scarlatti’s underlying music in the outer movements of the Concerto No.5 whilst an urbane and expressive approach instilled more balance and order in the middle two with their brief, discreet solo episodes, making for a satisfying whole.

The open space of the Albert Hall without an audience to muffle the sound proved, perhaps, surprisingly good (at least in the broadcast on radio and television) for this repertoire which could otherwise be swamped by that ambience. Vivaldi’s crisp and sustained writing for solo instruments – which blooms so well in a resonant stone environment like the Pieta church in Venice – particularly benefitted from that the generous acoustic.BBC listeners were invited to choose the encore for this concert, and the Rondo from Purcell’s Abdelazer was the winner. Like Handel’s Passacaglia, this received a firm and sonorous rhythmic grounding, set against which the solo violin’s episode seemed all the more tragic.

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