A wry British weather observation maintains that it is often possible to experience all four seasons within a single day. That was certainly true earlier this week in London – from sleet to sunshine within the hour – and it was also the case inside Milton Court on Saturday, where Accademia Bizantina played Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons spread across two concerts interspersed with other music by the Red Priest, both sacred and secular. 

Accademia Bizantina
© Giulia Papetti

Italian period instrument ensembles bring something special to the music of Vivaldi. There’s nothing anaemic about their sound. Accademia Bizantina doesn’t perhaps exhibit the hell-for-leather aggression of Il Giardino Armonico, but it is a top notch ensemble and there was plenty of passion on display here. There was panache too, both musical and sartorial with the sharp suits and vertiginous heels of Italian couture. 

The Four Seasons may attract the adjectives “hackneyed” and “ubiquitous”, but this was the first live performance I’d encountered in six years. In terms of style and quality, it was perhaps the finest I’ve ever heard. Alessandro Tampieri, Accademia Bizantina’s concertmaster, was the excellent soloist, billing and cooing with Ana Liz Ojeda, leader of the second violins, in the avian chatter of Spring. He sometimes added tasteful ornamentation and embellishments to decorate the solo line and the opening movement of Autumn had a woozily inebriated quality. The ensemble was equally sensitive. Director Ottavio Dantone took the harpsichord on a hallucinatory flight of fancy in the central movement of Autumn, the Summer tempest stole in with a distant rumble and Winter descended bitterly with sul ponticello stabs. There was no dramatic playing to the gallery, no percussive gunshot effects in Autumn’s hunt, but Tampieri and friends played with vigour and imagination. 

That imagination was also evident in four concertos for multiple soloists from Vivaldi’s Op.3 set, L’estro armonico, musical duels in which violinists spar from opposing sides of the harpsichord. The parry and thrust was sometimes incisive, sometimes playful, especially in the B minor concerto featuring four solo violinists where contrasting timbres – suave, sweet, mellow, gruff – added their highly individual voices to the dialogue. The infectious qualities of Vivaldi’s writing was delightful and it was no surprise that Dantone chose the strumtastic finale to the A major concerto, with Tiziano Bagnati rocking the Baroque guitar, as the evening’s encore. 

Alessandro Tampieri
© Giulia Papetti

Each concert included a sacred cantata for solo voice, the Stabat Mater in the afternoon, the Nisi dominus in the evening. To Italian sartorial style, versatile American countertenor John Holiday brought bling to the stage, wearing a striking gold jacket – gold trousers too in the evening – and exuding an effervescent personality. There was vocal bling too. Holiday’s countertenor is strong and bright in its soprano range, a very operatic sound, especially when tossing in bravura leaps up an octave to end some sections literally on a high. Whether sacred music is the place to demonstrate your flashy top notes is another matter. I’d love to hear Holiday sing some of Vivaldi’s truly virtuosic opera arias. 

Dantone and Accademia Bizantina offered sensitive support, the stabbing motifs in the Eia mater, fons amoris (Accordingly, Mother, fountain of love) section of the Stabat Mater given at different dynamics and the Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum (For he has granted to those he loves rest) of the Nisi dominus lulling with the strings’ gentle pulse. It was in these numbers that Holiday was most touching too, a reminder that Vivaldi had many more strings to his musical bow than The Four Seasons.