Venice in December can have a sinister air, mists rising from the canals to silently shroud the city. Sometimes, the Basilica is invisible from the other side of the Piazza San Marco. A day after the Winter Solstice, however, Avi Avital threw off that wintry cloak to present a – mostly – sun-drenched Serenissima at Wigmore Hall. The Israeli mandolinist brought an authentic backing band too, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, in an ebullient evening largely focused on the city’s Red Priest himself, Antonio Vivaldi.

Avi Avital © Zohar Ron
Avi Avital
© Zohar Ron

Bachtrack has 522 Vivaldi concertos catalogued in its database, an astonishing number, even if four particular – seasonal – concertos still dominate the performance listings. Stravinsky considered Vivaldi, “greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over.” I wonder how many of them old Igor had actually heard… and in which performances. Chamber orchestras of the 1970s, dutifully ploughing through collections at steady tempi, certainly contributed to similar opinions and even the early days of period instrument performances sounded worthy rather than inspired.

But then came the Italians! Groups like Il Giardino Armonico, Europa Galante and Concerto Italiano shook up the Baroque world with fiery interpretations, less concerned with fidelity to the score than making those notes leap off the page. Founded in 1997, the Venice Baroque Orchestra swiftly joined those illustrious ranks and their contributions this evening were lusty and invigorating. Leading from the violin, Gianpiero Zanocco supplied fizzing spiccatos and humorous delays in Francesco Geminiani’s concerto grosso arrangement of his teacher Corelli’s La Follia. Lutenist Ivano Zaneghi – a real character who later, taking longer than Avital to retune his instrument, regaled the audience with the quip “I have no money to buy a new one!” – strummed furiously, often exchanging conspiratorial glances with cellist Massimo Raccanelli. In the brief Sinfonia in G major, there were hints of the heat haze and buzzing fireflies of Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons, the VBO’s muscular attack full of vigour.

Of those 522 concertos, the mandolin only features in three: one solo concerto, one double and the “con molti stromenti” RV 558 for some 13 soloists. This didn’t prevent Avital offering four Vivaldi works, all bursting with life. Few concertos are as delicate as the C major RV 425, where the strings – apart from a few cello bars – play pizzicato, almost as if imitating their mandolin superstar. Avital, seated, had an insouciant air, a silvery stream of notes and tasteful ornaments pouring from his strings, the finale dazzling in its virtuosity. The Lute Concerto in D major is a natural one for the mandolin to purloin – did I spy an envious glance from Zaneghi? Avital never lingered and the VBO zinged in the Allegro outer movements.

Avi Avital © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Avi Avital
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

The Concerto in A minor RV 356 is originally for violin, from the collection entitled L’estro armonico. In transcription, the mandolin has to play tremolos to cover long sustained violin bows, which Avital made sound a completely natural transition. In the central Largo, he captured an air of improvisational reverie.

The interloper in this Venetian extravaganza was Giovanni Paisiello, best known for his version of The Barber of Seville (composed 34 years before Rossini’s). Paisiello was based in Naples and Avital, in a humorous introduction, described the more temperamental “Neapolitan dialect” of this music. Easily the longest concerto of the evening, Avital dispatched it with panache, rising from his seat at one dramatic tremolo flourish.

The most familiar item came last, the Violin Concerto in G minor, Op.8 no. 2, RV 315 – better known as just “Summer”. The oppressive heat of the opening trembled and shimmered under Avital’s fingers and the parched sul ponticello strings scratched ominously in the Adagio, leading to the finale’s furious cloudburst. An Italian storm, given a tempestuous performance, but a welcome burst of sunshine too on a dark December evening.

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