Uneven conducting, soaring vocalism in CSO’s Baroque program

Fri Feb 10, 2017 at 10:09 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Violinist Fabio Biondi and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux served as guides on Thursday night’s tour of 18th-century Italy at Symphony Hall. For this all-Baroque program, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra scaled back to five or six players to a line, intimate enough for a harpsichord always to be heard. And Biondi led the proceedings throughout, bow in hand.

The orchestra’s performance of Corelli’s Concerto grosso No. 4 was an inauspicious opening to the evening. Biondi’s own solo playing and his gestures to the orchestra seemed design to elicit playful phrasing. But the orchestra served up porridge. Rhythms were flabby, any sense of contrapuntal interplay was undetectable, and violinist Stephanie Jeong and cellist John Sharp had no sense of chemistry with Biondi.

Things went much better in the three Vivaldi violin concertos on the program—RV 222, RV 271, and RV 284. Whether because they were responding more attentively to Biondi’s leadership or to the springier rhythms of Vivaldi’s style, the orchestra found the grit that they had lacked in the Corelli.

Biondi’s performance of the solo part was ceaselessly imaginative throughout all three concertos, at times strikingly interventionist in matters of articulation and tempo. But in certain passages, especially in RV 222, his tone turned pinched and his pitch bent flatwards. If this was intentional tonal shading, there was no indication of it from the orchestra, which did not do likewise. This incompatibility in their approaches was often apparent.

The exception to this was RV 271, nicknamed “L’amoroso,” the best concerto performance of the night. Biondi and the orchestra were as one in the tenderness and lilt they brought to the piece.

But perhaps surprisingly, Biondi and the orchestra were most ardent when accompanying Genaux, rather than when thrust in the concerto spotlight. It was in these pieces that their dynamics were most varied, and their articulations most piquant.

Genaux sang four arias: one by Vivaldi, and three by lesser-remembered composers—Geminiano Giacomelli, Francesco Maria Veracini, and Attilio Ariosti. The selection was astutely balanced: two dramatic, psychological arias (the Giacomelli and Ariosti) contrasting with two pyrotechnic displays (the Veracini and Vivaldi).

For richness of character and color, Genaux’s rendition of “Sposa, non mi conosci” from Giacomelli’s Merope could not be beat. She used her darkest chest tones sparingly; but when they sounded, the betrayal felt by Epitide (her character) stung deep.

A reliable test of mettle in Baroque music is how a performer handles sequences. In the best hands (and voices), they are never the mere spinning of tonal cogwheels. In the Giacomelli aria, there is a sequence on the words “la tua speranza” that is an invitation to expression. And Genaux happily accepted it: tugging here, floating there to make a poignant lament of it.

Had the program consisted entirely of Genaux’s performance of “Agitata da due venti” from Vivaldi’s Griselda, it would have been worth the price of admission. The wind-blown waters the text describes could not have bounded with as much litheness as she did. Leaps of pinpoint accuracy were strewn among scales and ornaments of such evenness that her voice might have been worked by keys.

The concerto grosso with which Biondi and the orchestra ended the program—Corelli’s eleventh—was a mystifying choice. After the barnstorming virtuosity of the Vivaldi concertos and aria alike, Corelli’s baubles—charming though they are—were apt to feel insubstantial. Biondi and the orchestra’s performance was tasteful, true to each movement’s dance origins. But it was an earthbound conclusion to an evening that had previously soared.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Uneven conducting, soaring vocalism in CSO’s Baroque program”

  1. Posted Feb 10, 2017 at 1:50 pm by BrianB

    I agree with you about L’amoroso being the best of the concertos, and I though Genaux a brilliant vocalist.

    On the other hand I thought Biondi’s playing was not up to the CSO standard and found myself wishing he would trade places with one of the violinists near him. Combine that with the lack of volume balance when Genaux was singing and I was quite disappointed in him.

  2. Posted Feb 11, 2017 at 8:32 am by DanielPS

    I’m not qualified to judge Biondi’s performance as a conductor, but as a soloist he was outstanding. He absolutely shone during the virtuosistic parts, with imagination, originality, control and intensity. They were all touching. I found the interplay between him and the second violin always very well intertwined and seamless.

    Genaux was nimble, expressive, articulate, precise and emotionally touching. If anything, I regret having to notice she was not powerful and could not fill the auditorium as much as I would have liked.

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