Eurpoa Galante, directed by violinist Fabio Biondi, performed a program of baroque concerti at the McCarter Theatre on a world tour that includes stops at some highly prestigious venues.

Europa Galante
Europa Galante

Ever since Biondi formed his ensemble in 1990, he has been known for performing imaginative renditions of baroque favorites. He also has championed works and composers that otherwise might have been forgotten by the ravages of time.

The first piece on the program by Antonia Brioschi did exactly that – introduce even the aficionados in the audiences to a composer who is little known today. Brioschi’s Sinfonia in D major is one of the earliest examples of the symphony as a form. The first two movements were pleasant, though it was not until the final Presto that the music truly stood out.

Handel’s Suite from Rodrigo was the second piece on the program. Few audiences today are familiar with Rodrigo, the first opera he composed in Italy. The form of this Suite is typical of the time; it is a collection of dances preceded by an overture. Particularly delightful movements included the Gigue and the Matelot, as well as the final Passacaille, which Biondi added himself to round out the Suite.

The Gigue, scored for Violin I and reduced continuo, highlighted Biondi, harpsichordist Paola Poncet, cellist Marco Frezzato, and theorbist Giangiacomo Pinardi. The scoring allowed Poncet’s richly realized improvisations atop the bass line to come through more audibly. When improvising at the keyboard in this style, many players simply chug along, doing their best to fill out the harmony, only adding occasional moments of true creativity in beauty into their playing. Poncet, however, skillfully varied the texture of her playing, at times adding elaborate counter-melodies in the right hand. (There was a particularly nice lick in the right hand during the final Passacaille.)

For the second half of the program, the ensemble played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Even in the first phrases of Spring, you could tell Biondi had a fresh take on these almost cliché concerti. If you’re going to go hear a live performance of the Four Seasons, Europa Galanta is certainly the ensemble to hear.

Biondi played the Violin solo for all four concerti entirely from memory. Considering that just two days later, Mr. Biondi would be in New York performing a completely different full length program featuring mezzo-soprano Vivica Geneaux, this is a feat indeed!

In addition to being a talented impresario and conductor, Biondi is an incredible soloist. With this repertoire, many conductors today attempt to lead their ensembles while also playing, just as the works were performed centuries ago. While some are good soloists, but not conductors (and some visa versa), Biondi holds court over his players and still manages to tear it up on his own instrument.

The other instrumentalists displayed their skills as well, both in a solo lines, as well as with their sections. Principal cellist Marco Fezzato, for example, played his obligati with finesse, while also leading the other bass strings in concerted sections. Patzi Montero, playing the violone – a historical type of bass violin – also gave great shape to the bass line, contains occasion sections of furious arpeggios and quick thirty-second note runs. Montero not only executed these lines with flawless technique, but also with wonderful shape. The bass line was at once rhythmic yet melodic, precise yet singing, providing a solid foundation on which the upper strings danced playfully.

The audience begged for an encore, so Europa Galante repeated an Allegro from the Seasons. It is remarkable to think that these players were able to toss off such an effortless yet exciting program of concerti just days before performing a different set at Carnegie Hall. These musicians are truly some of the most able baroque musicians performing and recording today.

Whether the Brioschi piece is worth revisiting after hundreds of years if up for debate. Yet, it is important at least to experiment with “new” old works as Biondi does. Only by allowing them to live in front of a live audience can you really tell whether or not works will speak to audiences today. This work, still, is very important, and for those who are unfamiliar with Europa Galante, a quick browse through their discography will reveal an array of “new” old pieces that do speak to modern audiences.

Biondi also never fails to uncover new ideas in “old” old works, such Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Those who already own one or more copies of these famous works might wonder why they are worth recording again. Biondi’s own recording is certainly worth adding to any collection, because of the fresh approach – to say nothing of his own virtuosity on the violin and the skills of his ensemble as a whole.

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