Philharmonia Surprises with a Variety of Vivaldi

Steven Winn on March 16, 2015
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

In a program bent on rebuking Stravinsky’s dismissive taunt that Vivaldi didn’t write 400 concertos but one concerto 400 times, Philharmonia Baroque filled its weekend program with eight violin concerti by the Venetian Baroque master.

With the superb violinist Rachel Podger in the lead, looking the part in a cream-colored gown with a shiny silver sash, this vigorous and sensitively performed all-Vivaldi evening did indeed offer a wealth of contrasting delights.

There were raw-boned folk melodies and densely written fugues, deliberate rhythmic treads and stately dotted figures, extroverted celebrations and inwardly anguished Largos. The sum effect was one of Vivaldi’s inherent theatricality. As the composer of more than 40 operas, he knew how to startle, stop hearts in a heartbeat, and advance the musical narrative. All of that comes across in the concerti at their best.

Vivaldi can mount an exciting chase scene for multiple violins, as he does in the Concerto for 4 Violins Op. 3, No. 4 in E Minor that opened the Philharmonia bill. He can play witty and surprising imitation games, in evidence throughout Saturday’s concert at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. And he can suddenly recast a star as a dutiful accompanying bit player – Podger’s amusing lot in the entrancingly strange Concerto for Violin Op. 9, No. 12 in B Minor, her instrument eccentrically tuned in the scordatura manner.

Podger commended the audience, in brief remarks, for their “bravery” in facing an all-Vivaldi program with nothing but strings on offer. No winds, no brass, no voice, as she pointed out. If anything, the big crowd seemed to relish a night of bravura fiddling, stamping their feet like a rock band audience several times. In the early going especially, this was a genuinely exciting night of music, carried off by the fine Philharmonia players with a singleness of purpose, bright, full-bodied tone that ran from sweet to sinewy as required, and supple rhythmic and dynamic control. If anything, the big crowd seemed to relish a night of bravura fiddling, stamping their feet like a rock band audience several times.

Right from the start arresting things happened. The Adagio in the first concerto on the program was so brief that if felt more like a single sigh than fully formed breathing between two Allegros, the second of which offered clever reworking of material from the opening Andante.

Podger, as she did several times during the evening, improvised a bridge between the first concerto on the program and the second, the players shifting places for the wondrous Concerto for 2 Violins Op. 3, No. 8 in A Minor. (All but one of the eight concerti were in minor keys.)  The opening tutti gave way to a call-and-response interlude and a vibrant ritornello. The Larghetto that followed was one of the concert’s transporting highlights, as Podger and fellow soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock twined their lyrical lines together over a spare falling figure in the orchestra. A blustery Allegro brought things to a close in a windstorm of rapid, flowing passagework.

Another two-violin concerto, Op. 11, No. 3 in D Minor, paired Podger with Katherine Kyme. A frantic opening gave way to a driving fugue that came off with a sense of urgent momentum.  The borderline saccharine sweetness of the Larghetto was balanced by the players’ poise and slightly detached elegance.

What a marvel Philharmonia Baroque is when they’re on a roll. Vivaldi and Podger may have been the headliners here, but the orchestra’s excellence from top to bottom, bass to continuo, provided the nourishing support. What a marvel Philharmonia Baroque is when they’re on a roll.

Engaging as all this was, the concert did have a dip in energy after intermission. The second-to-last concerto, Op. 9, No. 9 in B-flat Minor, was the plainest and most dutiful work of the evening. The Concerto for 4 Violins, Op. 3, No. 10 in B Minor brought things to a jolly and celebratory end, but not before some wheel-spinning in the opening Allegro and a three-part Largo that seemed to trap both soloists and ensemble in its mannered dotted rhythms.

Call it Vivaldi fatigue. All-anything programs do run the risk of wearing out the audience’s auditory awareness. Listeners start to over-hear the similarities. None of that should subtract from the multiple rewards of the night.

These fine string players connect and communicate across such a wide Baroque bandwidth that the program was a repeatedly renewing pleasure. Even when the music served up a few premonitions of the composer’s numbingly over-exposed Four Seasons, this invigorating and seductive evening reminded listeners why Stravinsky had it all wrong.