Europa Galante brings bracing, aggressive weather to “Four Seasons”

Sat Jan 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Europa Galante, the premier Italian early-music ensemble, made their Mandel Hall debut in a stirring concert Friday night, an event that also featured the venue’s first early-instrument performance of Vivaldi’s omnipresent Four Seasons.

The Italians came late to original instrument performing practice, but when they arrived (in the late 80s and early 90s) they made a big splash. Europa Galante, with violinist-leader Fabio Biondi, was among the first of this new breed of historically-informed groups out of Italy and they remain among the finest to this day.

Fresh from a Carnegie Hall appearance, Biondi and his high-octane group of virtuoso instrumentalists immediately took charge of the occasion with strong readings of two contrasting pieces by Telemann: an Overture a quatre in a French high-baroque style and a concerto for flute, violin, cello and strings from the composer’s Tafelmusik, which, in its lovely first movement, anticipates the more graceful galant idiom. The overture was performed from a unique manuscript version, reflecting Biondi’s seriousness as a scholar but also refreshing the tonal palate.

The Four Seasons was stripped bare by the eleven-member ensemble. The simple but inevitable logic of this overperformed and underappreciated masterpiece emerged clearly from the bare-bones approach to the music in many striking ways.

The Italians are quite aggressive with this music. Fierce attacks and solos in a context of great speed and tension produced by rapid, close-to-the-bridge bowing, was marked by thwacking and other percussive effects lending the music an edginess and vitality.

Also, the string players stood and interacted with each other in different configurations depending on the musical situation. Biondi himself often faced the group with his back to the audience, turning round to project his finely detailed solos as required. The very present continuo was thrown off with panache by the bassist and the seated cello and theorbo/lute players. Harpsichordist Paola Poncet was especially notable for her fluency and tastily articulated solos.

There were some minor intonation problems in the bass and elsewhere but final judgment rests with one’s response to the unremitting aggression in the speedier movements. Some repose was offered by the slower sections, but there was little respite from the tension and the longer lines came off a bit unsteadily, unaided by the unreverberant acoustic of the hall, which further muted an already dry reading. In the Telemann concerto the solo flute of Frank Theuns was sometimes inaudible.

Still, the sheer energy and vitality of the performance proved winning. Two encores sparkled: a movement from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op 6 no 4 showed off a suavity, which whetted the appetite for more of the same, and a short pizzicato from Gluck’s Don Juan ended the evening on a light note.

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