English Chamber Orchestra: Vivaldi at Cadogan Hall review ****

English Chamber Orchestra, Choir of the C21

Cadogan Hall, 2nd December 2018

Raphaela Papadakis (soprano), Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Stephanie Gonley (violin), Caroline Dale (cello), Harry Winstanley (flute), Michael Collins (conductor)

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Gloria in D RV 589
  • Concerto for Violin in F minor, ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons, Op 8 No 4, RV 297
  • Concerto for Violin in E flat major (La tempesta di mare), Op 8 No 5, RV 253
  • Concerto for Violin and Cello in B flat major, RV 547
  • Concerto for Flute in D (Il gardellino), Op 10 No 3, RV 428

Vivaldi now is generally the preserve of the specialist Baroque ensembles. With audiences to match. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to hear a performance of the Four Seasons in London and aren’t too sniffy about who performs it you won’t have long to wait. Gloria may not be up their with the Faure or Mozart Requiems or Allegri’s Miserere in the popularity stakes but it still gets a fair few outings. Beyond that though if you, like me, crave repeated fixes of Vivaldi then you normally need to wait for the experts to visit. I can see why Vivaldi’s vast and exquisite output has been hijacked by a just a handful of his pieces. And I can also see why, a la Stravinsky, there are so many classical music buffs who airily dismiss Vivaldi as a lightweight, one-trick pony, before they return to their Wagner or some such other turgid dross.

Well let me tell you they are wrong. I can’t pretend an encyclopaedic knowledge of the RV’s and anyway life, literally, would be too short to “know” all of AV’s music, (even now that so much has been recorded by specialists). The cantatas, much of the sacred music outside the familiar and of course the operas, (with their risibly stereotypical plots) are unknown to me. None of this matters though since Vivaldi’s music is so immediate, so deceptively, but rarely actually, simple that even on the first listen it can be enjoyed. Which means all you need to do, (look away now buffs), is grab some cheap, web regarded collections and switch on your shuffle. Result. Life enhanced. Simple really.

So this all Vivaldi bill by the ECO, under conductor Michael Collins, caught my eye. A Gloria, a Winter, a couple of the best concerti, for respectively violin and flute, outside of you-know-what and then a comparative rarity, one of the handful of double concerti scored for violin and cello. From a chamber ensemble with a fine pedigree; remember their first Patron was Benjamin Britten and some of Britten’s finest recordings of his own music were made in partnership with them. They are not though, and this is in no way intended to be disparaging, experts in the Baroque. In fact they are one of the most versatile of orchestras anywhere on the planet. Look at their immense list of recordings. They will even do weddings. Though it helps if your names are Harry Windsor and Megan Markle.

The Choir of the C21 led by Max Barley is a similarly broad, though still top drawer, church. Our soloists for the Gloria were well matched soprano Raphaela Papadakis and mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean with ECO principals Stephanie Gonley and Caroline Dale taking the instrumental leads along with young flautist Harry Winstanley. Now I can’t pretend that these performances were up there with the best of the Vivaldi interpreters I have heard, La Serenissima under Adrian Chandler, the Concerto Italiano, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Brecon Baroque and Gli Incognito, but they were still very enjoyable. Especially in the Gloria.

I was particularly taken by the double concerto where Stephanie Gonley and Catherine Dale’s familiarity paid dividends, This is one of only four concertos for this coupling of which one is incomplete. The Allegro comprises arpeggio figures which begin in the ripieno before being taken up by the soloists, offset with more lyrical passages. The slow movement is a conversation between the soloists a la Bach and the final pacey allegro offers more virtuoso opportunity against a triple rhythm accompaniment.

The flute concerto, No 3 of the six which make up Op 10 was likely published in 1728. A cardellino or gardellino is a goldfinch, a popular caged bird in Vivaldi’s Venice, (and in Golden Age Holland, as you will no doubt know from Carel Fabritius’s exquisite painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and which inspired Donna Tart’s ambitious novel). The goldfinch often crops up in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child, the little fella symbolising the foreknowledge that mum had about her son’s eventual gory death. No such iconography here though, for Vivaldi the relevance was the wee bird’s song. The tweeting is most obvious in the last movement which allows the flautist to develop ever more extravagant virtuosic tweeting. The first movement isn’t quite so ornithological with the flute offering trills, runs and staccato repeats more in counterpoint to the bouncy riternello dance. The fast movements sandwich a lilting cantabile into which tousle-haired Harry injected a surprising quote of lyricism.

Vivaldi was quite keen on stormy seas. RV 433 is a La tempesta di mare for flute and RV 570 a Concerto grosso with the same sub-title. RV 253 is the violin concerto equivalent, part of the Op 8 twelve titled the Contest Between Harmony and Invention of which the first four are the Seasons. No surprise I guess for a Venetian with a view from the Ospedale della Pieta out over the lagoon to the Lido and beyond to the Adriatic. Now I happen to think that there is as much in the other 8 concertos as there is in the Four Seasons, certainly in terms of tunes, if not in pure rock ‘n’ roll theatricality. An original score for 253 survives in Dresden, probably brought by JG Pisendel the violinist when he returned from studying with Vivaldi. Pisendel was the man who introduced Vivaldi’s music to JS Bach. Diamond geezer.

253’s fast movements are marked Presto not just Allegro so they need to be quick. The central Largo is the three minutes or so of relative calm though even at the end the storm is plainly on its way back. Both storms call for seemingly never-ending (well a few minutes) of descending figurations, the last set against a sort of dotted fanfare rhythm, the first even more frantic arpeggios against a scrubbing ritornello. I enjoyed Stephanie Gonley’s rendition but you probably also need to hear this played at more extreme tempi from one of the big-boned Italian outfits with, say, Federico Guglielmo or Giuliano Carmignola in the hot seat. Same is true of 297 Winter (which has that bit of summer in it just like Summer often feels a bit wintry).

Before the Gloria we were treated to a burst of medieval carol arrangements to beef up the festive quotient. At least those of us not underneath the gallery, where the choir was located, were treated. Still a nice touch. (Now as it happens I have a jolly collection of medieval carols, songs and chants from Pro Cantione Antiqua and the English Medieval Wind ensemble on CD I can recommend). It was as much as MSC and I could do to stop MS popping upstairs and joining in for he is the expert on all things Black Death to the end of the War of the Roses.

I am not actually sure if MS and MSC had heard a recording of the Gloria before but this was certainly their first Vivaldi gig. It is simply not possible for anyone raised in the culture of Western musical tonality not to like Vivaldi’s Gloria. Unless they are dead. And even then it will be on most of the playlists in heaven I would guess. Were that, Pascal’s Wager style, to actually exist. Anyway MS and MSC seemed to like it unless there were being their usual polite selves when it comes to their overly solicitous Dad/Future-Father-In-Law.

The Gloria was composed around 1715 for the residents of the Ospedale. They probably drafted in a few blokes for the tenor and bass lines. The young women of the Ospedale were prodigiously talented, after all Vivaldi composed music for them that even today taxes the very best of musicians (especially for violin), but they probably couldn’t quite get to the gruffer end of the vocal scale. After Vivaldi died in 1741, impoverished after the failed attempt to set up shop in Vienna, the score of Gloria was lost and forgotten until being rediscovered in Turin in the late 1920s. It is a setting of the eponymous section of the Latin Mass divided into twelve sections, all mercifully short and it is resolutely upbeat even as it contrasts keys, moods, tempi, instrumentation and voices.

It is perfect.

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