How to represent Italy's contribution to the Baroque era in eight pieces? This was the dilemma facing the 14-strong Concerto de' Cavalieri, conducted by Marcello Di Lisa. The ensemble's solution was to take samples from four of the country's major musical centres – enice, Rome, Naples and Bologna – by some of its most highly regarded composers. What ensued was a whistle-stop tour of some of the most exciting approaches to the concerto genre from Baroque Italy, all performed with panache and energy by the Concerto de' Cavalieri.

Concerto dei cavalieri © Valletta International Baroque Festival
Concerto dei cavalieri
© Valletta International Baroque Festival

The ensemble's performance was vivacious yet stylish, with a direct yet colourful sound. Di Lisa shaped phrases with a light touch, allowing the phrases to breathe while maintaining a clear sense of drive. The weight of the double bass helped energise rather than hamper, creating a firm foundation upon which the harmonies could resonate. From the start, the performance fizzed: witticisms in the concerti were observed with glee, and Allegros were unceasingly joyful. Not all was perfect: at times, the full sound of the violins was replaced with a harsher, more strident tone, while intonation between the first violins grated in the Adagio of Porpora's Concerto for Strings Op.2 no. 3.

It was the ensemble's enjoyment of this repertoire, though, which left the lasting impression, with their enthusiasm infectious. Two of Archangelo Corelli's Concerto Grossi were on the programme: those in D major (Op. 6 No. 4) and G minor (Op. 6 No. 8 “Per la notte di Natale”). Although grouped within the same collection, the two could not be more different. Whereas the former is constructed in three movements, the second defies conventions. The programmatic title is expressed in a series of mood paintings, encompassing breathless expectation, sunny lyricism and a gentle, lullaby-like Pastorale. The Concerto de' Cavalieri depicted each tableau with fervour, maintaining textural clarity and buoyancy throughout.

Another unusual contribution to the genre is Antonio Vivaldi's Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro” in B minor (RV169). This sombre work is in just two movements, yet its emotional weight belies its brevity: ominous bass pedals, despairing descending figures and a atmosphere of gloom throughout means that it certainly leaves an impression. Unfortunately, the reduced numbers meant that errors in tuning were even more exposed; however, the decision to perform the work without Di Lisa added intimacy and furthered the work's intensity.

Vivaldi's Concerto for 4 violins and strings in B minor RV580 and his Concerto for 2 violins and strings in A major (RV 519) offered further snapshots of the composer, with the latter work the more interesting of the two. Fiery and dramatic, the work certainly provided a challenge for the two soloists, whose moto perpetuo lines dominated the first movement. The aria-like second movement was certainly a change of pace, with a meditative solo over gently pulsing violin accompaniment; the interlude was evocatively rendered by the ensemble, before an assured and crisp finale.

Concerto dei cavalieri © Valletta International Baroque Festival
Concerto dei cavalieri
© Valletta International Baroque Festival

Bononcini's Sinfonia a tre in D major Op.4 no. 12 was another work which posed a particular challenge to its soloists, but here it was musicality rather than technical prowess which was tested. The three central movements placed each of the soloists in the spotlight, providing them with characterful decorative lines which seem almost rhetorical in nature. The soloists separated themselves from the accompanying ensemble as if speakers from a crowd, tracing musical ideas through numerous moods. Serene outer movements completed the performance of this attractive piece.

The Neapolitan school was represented by Alessandro Scarlatti and Nicola Porpora. The lively rhythms of Scarlatti's Concerto Grosso no. 3 in F major were crucial to the light-hearted feel of the outer movements, while the aching violin thirds of the Adagio were taken at a brisk tempo, preventing the movement from losing direction and intensifying the surprise of unlikely harmonic turns. Meanwhile, Porpora's Concerto for strings in G minor Op.2 no. 3 was genial throughout: busy passagework was brought off with spark and bounce, while introspective moments charmed rather than languished. Aside from the tendency of the violin section towards a rather pointed sound, the playing was impressively polished. Special praise must go to violin soloist Francesca Vicari, whose playing was unfailingly bright and expressive, and the sensitive accompaniment on theorbo (Francesco Tomasi) and harpsichord (Salvatore Carchiolo). A highly enjoyable concert.

 

The Valletta International Baroque Festival runs until Saturday 24 January.

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