An opportunity to hear the Chicago Symphony show their mettle as a Baroque band is routinely something to look forward to, and this week’s offering was led by the Sicilian-born conductor-violinist Fabio Biondi making his CSO debut. A true period specialist having founded the acclaimed ensemble Europa Galante, Biondi’s program unearthed a generous smorgasbord of Baroque gems – with all except the Corelli first performances for the CSO. The concise selections – none of which exceeded even the 15-minute mark – were comprised of a pair of Corelli concerti grossi, a trio of Vivaldi violin concertos, and a quartet of Baroque opera arias with mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux.

Vivica Genaux © Ribalta Luce Studio
Vivica Genaux
© Ribalta Luce Studio

Biondi conducted all works from the violin, facing the audience during the solo passages and turning towards the ensemble in the tutti to promote intimate communication amongst the vastly reduced CSO of only strings and harpsichord. Opening with the Concerto grosso in D major from Corelli’s landmark Op.6, it was noted for its gentle, expressive introduction, building to more energetic playing and ultimately concluding in a sparkling, effervescent finale with some rapid-fire violin work from Biondi. To neatly bookend, the evening closed with the B-flat major concerto from the same set. Embodying the sonata da camera, this concerto eschewed the abstract forms of the D major work in favor of movements inspired by dance. A spacious Preludio opened and gave way to the rhythmic punch of the Allemanda, and the work closed in a rollicking Gigue. As with the rest of the program, matters were authoritatively grounded in the continuo of harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner and cellist John Sharp.

The three Vivaldi violin concertos brought Biondi’s violin playing into the spotlight with mixed results. While he was expressive and often technically impressive, I found his intonation to be frustratingly inconsistent. The highpoint of the Violin Concerto in D major came in the central Andante, the stately opening soon all but distilled to a serene songful melody in the solo violin. Nicknamed L’amoroso, the E major concerto was the most intriguing to my mind in the appealing lyricism of this music of finely-crafted subtlety. The Cantabile movement was marked by the violin’s reaching high notes over glacial harmonic motion, while there was pure joy in the jaunty, dance-like finale. The F major concerto was a product of Vivaldi’s principle of la stravaganza, which seeks the unexpected within the confines of an otherwise familiar form, although I found Biondi’s reading a step too anodyne to properly emphasize the element of surprise.

A native of Fairbanks, Alaska, Vivica Genaux has risen to one of today’s leading practitioners of the Baroque vocal repertoire, and her offering of arias served as the evening’s highlight. While one selection provided a glimpse into the vocal writing of Vivaldi, the remainder came from the pens of largely forgotten composers. Genaux presented two arias in each half, in both cases thoughtfully contrasting an introspective work with one more exuberant. Beginning with “Sposa, non mi conosci” from Giacomelli’s opera Merope, one was struck by the deep, expressive weight with which Genaux imbued the text, made all the more affecting by the pulsing, gradually modulating strings, and her impressive handling of the melismas further heightened the drama. “Già presso al termine”, extracted from Veracini’s Adriano in Siria, was music of high spirits, the bevy of ornaments a platform for the nimble flexibility of Genaux’s instrument in a stunning display of vocal pyrotechnics.

In the second half, Genaux returned with Ariosti’s “Questi ceppi”, a heartfelt work, and the emotion she conveyed was utterly genuine. Her portion of the program concluded with “Agitata da due venti” from Vivaldi’s Griselda where again she dazzled in the melismas, here perhaps painting the winds and waves indicated in the text, and certainly whetting one’s appetite for more of Vivaldi’s not inconsiderable output of opera.