April 8, 2008

Four Seasons, Many Nations

By John Lutterman

Friday night’s performance by Europa Galante offered a long-awaited opportunity to hear some of the most colorful performers on today’s early-music scene. The orchestra’s appealing program, played on Baroque period instruments, made it easy to see why director-violinist Fabio Biondi’s exploration of unfamiliar repertoire and his imaginative rethinking of venerable warhorses like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons have drawn such a popular following.
Although often mentioned in the same breath with the equally colorful Andrew Manze, Biondi is a much more understated performer. Manze’s quicksilver imagination really keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, occasionally nervously wondering whether the violinist will fly out of control while navigating his more daring twists and turns. Biondi, on the other hand, plays with great aplomb, and on Friday, his self-assured demeanor sometimes masked the improvisatory excitement of his equally bold flights of fancy. Once considered mavericks, both performers are now respected authorities in the early-music world, and their success has done much to encourage young musicians to question and push beyond the more literalist orthodoxies that the pioneers of earlier generations established.

Europa Galante

In Friday’s concert, Biondi and his orchestra seemed to have difficulty adapting to the venue’s somewhat unusual acoustics. Although Berkeley’s First Congregational Church is one of the best, most pleasantly reverberant performance spaces in the East Bay, especially for early string instruments, it poses challenges for performers unfamiliar with its idiosyncrasies. The main problem is that the sound seems much “drier” for the performers onstage than it actually is in the hall, which can lead them to shy away from the crisper, shorter articulations that are such important expressive tools in much of this repertoire. As a result, the shape of individual lines was sometimes indistinct, wafting in and out of focus, and textures in the orchestra were often rather muddy, especially in the continuo group.

The above reservations notwithstanding, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The program, titled “France, Italy, and England: Connections and Exchanges” in an attempt to illustrate crosscultural influences during the Baroque, opened with an appealingly multicultural little suite, titled Les Nations, an allusion to Couperin’s famous collection of sonatas. The suite is actually a kind of anthology that Biondi assembled from short pieces by various composers, each “movement” representing a different national style.

The most intriguing aspect of the collection was the fact that the title of each movement promised a portrait of a particular culture foreign to the individual composer: French culture from the Italian Baldassare Galuppi, Spanish from the Austrian Muffat, Chinese from the Frenchman Andre Campra, and so on. In practice, however, the differences were subtle, and it was not always clear just what qualities the composers would have considered characteristic for each particular national style.
Biondi’s Uneven Solo
Next, Biondi took the spotlight as soloist in Jean-Marie Leclaire’s C-Major Violin Concerto, Op. 7, No. 3, itself an interesting French interpretation of an Italian genre. Leclaire was a well-known virtuoso, but while his concerto offers the soloist plenty of challenges, the contrast between soloist and the full ensemble is downplayed, and thematic material is tossed back and forth much more freely than in a conventional Italian concerto.

Biondi met the technical challenges with characteristic panache. Since he is known for his colorful, original approach to phrasing, I was disappointed to hear Biondi fall back on a number of the staid clichés that “modern” violinists often rely on when performing this repertoire, particularly a rather predictable and unimaginative use of vibrato and portato. Nonetheless, his was a thoughtful interpretation, with well-shaped phrases, clever use of timing, and some wonderfully subtle shades of color.

Purcell’s suite of pieces drawn from his incidental music for Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge presents another multicultural offering. Yet here, too, the music provides few clues to show us what Purcell might have considered a “Moorish” style. Apart from a “Jigg” (presumably Irish), the cultural styles that he draws on are primarily the operatic genres of the Italians, along with the classic French overture and dance forms. The performance was crisp and stylish, with well-focused textures, particularly in the Ouverture and the Rondeau, the latter perhaps best known as the source of the theme employed by Benjamin Britten in his popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Although there were puzzling small flaws in the performance, including some questionable intonation, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which made up the second half of the program, was a revelation. Performers are forever attempting to find ways to make this tired warhorse sound new and fresh, but rarely do they truly succeed. I occasionally found Biondi’s interpretive decisions less than entirely convincing, but they were always intelligent, original, and challenging, and in the end, I was left with that rare feeling that I had actually seen intriguing new facets of this familiar work.

John Lutterman is a cellist and musicologist. He holds a D.M.A. from SUNY Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in historical musicology from UC Davis.