Founded in Berlin in 1982, the Akademie für Alte Music Berlin (known as Akamus for short) is a highly-regarded chamber orchestra whose appearances in the UK are sufficiently infrequent to entice a full house to Wigmore Hall for an (almost) exclusively Vivaldi concert. The Akademie brought a reduced sized orchestra to suit the Wigmore Hall stage, six violins and two violas plus cello, double bass, bassoon and theorbo. I think it fair to say that the majority of the Akademie orchestra were more mature than many we see on UK platforms, and one of the most noticeable features was an unmatched togetherness and an admirable air of getting on with the business of music-making. Led by concert master violinist Georg Kallweit, the orchestra simply walked on stage, took a brief bow and immediately struck the first chords – the allegro from the Sinfonia from Guistino RV 717 – which set the tone for the whole evening; scaldingly fast but incisive, with a lightness of tone and suppleness which commanded respect and attention.

Jean-Guihen Queyras © François Séchet
Jean-Guihen Queyras
© François Séchet

Half the items in this very full programme comprised solo concertos for oboe or cello but while they added spice and variety they were so cleverly integrated into the concert that they by no means detracted from the orchestral items, as can sometimes happen. The Concerto in C major RV450 had originally been written for solo bassoon but was re-worked by Vivaldi in the same key for solo oboe. Principal oboist Zenia Löffler’s rich, smooth tone and even breath control made light work of the Larghetto, which held the audience rapt, but outstandingly so in the fast and furious syncopations of the finale.

Of the around 500 concertos Vivaldi wrote, about 30 were for the cello, and the evening’s programme included three of them; an early Concerto in G minor apparently is considered one of the prototypes for the concertos. Rick Jones’ detailed programme notes highlighted the orchestra’s recurrent theme – the ritornello – but transformed in each repeat, with the soloist’s pyrotechnics in between. At the other end of the scale, the Cello Concerto in F major appears to be one of Vivaldi’s latest works, and was one of the 300 manuscripts discovered in Turin in 1926 which led to the modern revival of Vivaldi's fortunes. The cello soloist was Jean-Guihen Queyras. Hailing from France (despite his Latin-sounding name), Queyras has a wide-ranging repertoire spanning the 18th to 21 centuries. I have to confess that the solo cello is not an instrument that speaks to me, and for a full appreciation of Queyras’ musicality I refer the reader to Mark Pullinger’s earlier review, but I can report that the discerning and well-informed Wigmore Hall audience were very appreciative of his playing. The final movement of the Cello Concerto in A minor was such dramatic fun that they played it again straight away as an encore.

But the excellent soloists notwithstanding, for me the highlight of the evening was the sheer skill, eloquence and sparkle of the Akademie itself and particularly the strings section, which truly brought this music to life. Nothing seemed remotely difficult for them, neither the breakneck tempo, nor the technical difficulty of the music. If I had to choose just one piece to sum up it would be the short Concerto for strings in C, RV114. One of the so-called Paris Concertos, re-discovered only in 1999 in the Paris Conservatoire, it lasts barely five minutes and concludes with an incredibly inventive Ciaccona – the only piece of all his output Vivaldi so designated – which is still playing in my head as I type. It started with a few bars of solo plucked double bass, picked up gradually by other instruments ending with an energetic flight through the scales which was so light and dancing that it could have taken off.