Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante – tour de force superstars in the world of historically-informed performance. Ever since I had first purchased their CD of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico as a youngster, I have been in totally awe of the sheer brilliance of their playing. No longer were the familiar Vivaldi concertos mundane Suzuki student pieces; now they were living, breathing virtuosic showpieces. To those accustomed to Romanticized, modern-instrument Baroque, and also to many staunch HIP purists, the ensemble’s playing may seem over-the-top. However, even as I have entered into the realm of HIP performance myself, I have not wavered in my initial opinion of the ensemble, and was thrilled when I learned that the ensemble was going to perform in Chicago this October.

Europa Galante © Ana de Labra
Europa Galante
© Ana de Labra

My initial experience of listening to the recording had prepared me very little for the ensuing experience – an astounding sonic spectacular and passionate technical fireworks show captured minimally in the ensemble’s recordings. Primarily revolving around the relatively obscure world of the Spanish Baroque and associated musical ideas such as “La Folia” (a musical theme around which many compositions were based), this earth-shattering, dynamic performance proved truly a night to remember, culminating in two brilliantly rendered encores. Ensemble leader and renowned Baroque violinist Fabio Biondi possessed superior technical éclat, flawlessly executing intricate virtuosic passages with unbelievable ease. His rippling bow arm and unbelievably deft left hand never failed to amaze, mesmerizing the audience into a perpetual state of awe, alongside his impressive fellow violinist Andrea Rognoni. Similarly, the delicate tinkling of cheerful harpsichordist Paola Poncet exquisitely accented violinistic virtuosity as her petite yet agile hands deftly danced across the keyboard, while the remaining players in the continuo section provided a thrilling, growling, hurricane-like bass not too far removed from the Hurricane Sandy remnants then ravaging Chicago outside.

The repertoire choices proved just as outstanding as the level of technical virtuosity present. The concert opened with Vivaldi’s famous “La Folia” trio sonata, based upon the most famous theme utilized for theme-and-variation compositions during the Baroque and Renaissance epochs. From the first, gracefully executed notes, the ensemble immediately drew me into a mesmerizing and colorful world invoked by the melancholy strains of this hauntingly beautiful masterpiece. Although not as “gritty” and dramatic as Il Giardino Armonico’s rendition, with which I am intimately familiar, this more subtle rendition managed to bring out the less severe side of the piece, serving as an appetizer for the remainder of the program.

Later on, Biondi and the continuo section masterfully tied in the La Folia theme by performing the most famous set of variations upon the theme – the finale from Corelli’s famous Op. 5 violin sonatas. Again, Biondi’s masterful manipulation of the affections and his incredible Baroque bowing proved enthralling as he blazed and caressed through the entire twenty variations. Even more impressive, however, were the obscure Spanish and French Baroque gems masterfully interwoven into the rich fabric of this eclectic program. Inégales, harmonics, intense tremolo, and high positions – truly technically demanding for Baroque violin – never ceased to delight, with Biondi and company emerging victorious at every turn. Birds sang, battles raged, and Cupid and Psyche invisibly re-enacted their story as Biondi and company carefully rendered each piece.

All in all, this most memorable concert was a true “winner” and an exhilarating experience worthy of monarchial attention – and that of every classical music or HIP enthusiast in the Chicago area. Yes indeed, Spanish Baroque may seem highly esoteric, but with Europa Galante’s magic touch, this long-forgotten genre is once again a living, breathing virtuosic venue.