What better antidote to the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping than a sackful of festive concertos? With Birmingham’s famous German market in full swing right outside the Town Hall, inside was also packed with concertgoers of all ages eager to hear celebrated violinist Nicola Benedetti. Even the choir benches were full, with the back row nestled under splendid Christmas trees that sparkled either side of the organ.
It was a programme almost entirely of Italian Baroque music, but with plenty of contrasts nonetheless. The youthful European Union Chamber Orchestra, fine musical ambassadors for the EU, were enjoyable to listen to whether supporting the soloist or in sole command of a piece. Appropriately, the afternoon’s first composer was Corelli, a great violinist and stickler for orchestral discipline. He insisted that all bows should go up and down in unison, apparently not taken for granted in his day! His Concerto Grosso in G minor, associated with Midnight Mass at Christmas, received a dramatic opening attack from Benedetti and the whole group, then progressed through changes in tempo and colour, bringing out a stately, wintry feel, culminating in a rich, lyrical melody in the final Pastorale. You could feel the players breathing together to create that special unity of sound, especially when it came to the perfect placing of slow notes.
Benedetti’s regular chamber music partner Leonard Elschenbroich presented our first Vivaldi of the day, the Cello Concerto in G minor, with beautiful tone and virtuosity. With delicate orchestral backing, Elschenbroich executed ascending and descending scales galore, fast and furious in the Allegro then controlled and lament-like in the Largo. Following the EUCO’s pretty rendition of Manfredini’s Christmas Concerto, Benedetti and Elschenbroich duetted in Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and cello in F major, which has a subtitle that translates as “The world turned upside-down”. The composer had played a joke on his soloists by writing their parts in the wrong clef, but due to his skilful composition it was possible to swap parts; then, with a quick shift in pitch, it would work. Sounds a bit complicated to me, but there were certainly no issues this afternoon, just plenty of energy and verve, with the violin and cello interweaving and echoing, and extra texture added by the orchestra. The final Allegro clearly gave lots of scope for the soloists to show off, bringing the first half to a suitably upbeat conclusion.
Handel’s Pastoral Symphony from Messiah provided a brief foray away from Italy – or almost. Suggestive of the shepherds’ visit to the stable, the lilting melody is said to be based on a Calabrian tune that had been biding its time in the composer’s brain for some 32 years. The EUCO followed this with Torelli’s take on “Il Santissimo Natale”, his joyful Concerto Grosso in G minor, with accomplished solo work from first and second violins.
Back to Vivaldi for the star guest’s final statement. The Four Seasons needs little introduction, and the familiarity of Concerto no. 3 in F major, “L’autunno” and Concerto no. 4 in F minor, “L’inverno” got the audience into suitably festive spirit, ready to conquer the Christmas shopping with chattering teeth and stamping feet. The central movements of each piece were particular highlights: the supreme control of long notes in Autumn’s Adagio molto, and in Winter’s Largo a stunning lyrical solo line accompanied by the pizzicato backdrop of the upper strings. After prolonged applause, how lovely that Nicola Benedetti chose the Largo as her encore!