A warm breeze from the past
Whatever is happening to global weather patterns, there’s definitely been a climate change in the performance of Baroque music since the stranglehold of historical performance practice began tightening in the 1970s.
The atmosphere is more temperate now. Laws have relaxed. Variety is encouraged. The regional differences that existed in the period itself are mirrored in different approaches by groups from a variety of cities and countries.
Italian violinist Fabio Biondi founded his period instrument group, Europa Galante, in 1990 to assert his country’s presence on this international scene. The results have grown increasingly prominent and welcome at festivals and concerts around the world. The group has a special reputation for resurrecting 18th century Italian operas, and its recording of Vivaldi’s “Bajazet” was nominated for a Grammy in 2006.
Tuesday night, Biondi brought the 11-member ensemble to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a program called “France, Italy and England -- Connections and Exchange,” which included concertos by Vivaldi and Leclair, a suite by Purcell and a suite of Biondi’s own devising drawing on the music of six composers.
The playing that ensued was inviting, energetic, tightly cohesive and transparent in texture. It adhered to the general historically informed approach regarding short phrasings and sparing use of vibrato, but it was more liberal in its shifting dynamics.
Although not as personally expressive as some Baroque violinists (the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque’s Elizabeth Blumenstock comes to mind), Biondi wore his considerable virtuosity and authority lightly, with no grandstanding. Like all the musicians, except for the cellist, harpsichordist and theorbo, or lute, player, he stood when he played.
Vivaldi was represented by three pieces: the Sinfonia to the serenata “La Senna Festeggiante,” the Concerto in D minor for viola d’amore and lute, RV 540, and the Concerto in D minor for two violins, cello and strings, Opus 3, No. 11. The last, from the influential collection “L’Estro Armonico,” is one of the works Bach transcribed for keyboard as he studied the Italian master’s music.
All three works gave evidence of that amazing quality of unpredictable melodic, harmonic and rhythmic invention in seemingly straitjacketed forms that has beguiled audiences for three centuries.
Short fanfares and trotting rhythms opened the Sinfonia, taken from an obsequious 1726 Venetian ceremony honoring the French King Louis XV -- although unexpected chromatic slithering surfaced in the slow middle movement.
Giangiacomo Pinardi was Biondi’s valuable partner in the soft-toned concerto for viola d’amore and lute. In the sometimes weird duo-violin concerto, Andrea Rognoni matched Biondi perfectly in imitative passages and stood by patiently whenever Biondi got the lion’s share of the limelight, which was more often than might have been expected. Maurizio Naddeo was the exceedingly capable cellist, Salvatore Carchiolo the harpsichordist.
Not surprisingly, Purcell’s nine-movement Suite from Aphra Benn’s bloody-minded play “Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge” was more dour and dramatic than any of the Vivaldi pieces. But Leclair’s Violin Concerto in C, Opus 7, No. 3, which followed, restored a sense of ease and good humor to the program.
Biondi’s concluding suite, “Les Nations,” consisted of movements by Baldassare Galuppi, Georg Muffat, Andre Campra, Georg Philipp Telemann, Heinrich Biber and Andre Cardinal Destouches.
Each piece was originally composed in a style considered foreign or exotic, but those distinctions seem only quaint now, even as some of the composers have faded into obscurity. All were worthy, with Destouches’ closing Chaconne especially gracious and delightful.
The encore was the Pizzicato from Gluck’s “Don Juan.”