One would be hard pressed to find – certainly in the New York metropolitan area – a more suitable place to perform an evening of concerti from Vivaldi's L'estro armonico than the Music Room in the Rosen House at Caramoor, built in the 1930s by a rich couple with a great love for all things Italian. The public is surrounded in this intimate space not only by architectural reminiscences of an Italian Palazzo but also by a cornucopia of remarkable examples of Italian fine and decorative arts – several from the 18th century.

Harry Bicket and The English Concert
© Gabe Palacio (2018)

For the occasion, Harry Bicket, directing from the harpsichord, employed a subset of The English Concert’s roster, assigning – except the continuo – a single instrumentalist to each of the eight parts printed in the 1711 edition: four violins, two violas, cello and continuo (including here a double bass and a theorbo besides the harpsichord). Bicket also selected a subset of seven concertos from the total of twelve, thus disrupting the symmetry of a collection that the composer arranged in four groups of three, each containing a solo, double and quadruple concerto. The reasons for his choice were not very clear and were probably not related to the length of the programme (the intermission-less performance lasted less than 90 minutes). He avoided the fifth concerto, arguably the most popular of the series, and the sixth, the best-known solo concerto. Nevertheless, the selected works were played in the prescribed order, still revealing the variety of styles and scorings and also the cycle’s proximity to opera (in terms of lyricism and theatricality).

The composer’s inventiveness, his departure from Corelli-like models, was already apparent in the first group of three concertos. In the first (D major), the four solo violins revelled in drawing attention to their initial entrance or to the impressive unison in the slow movement. The G minor concerto, scored for two solo violins and solo cello, with divided violas, starts with an uncharacteristically slow introduction and features a dramatic contrast between a slow movement in the meter of a sarabande and a gigue-like finale, beautifully rendered here. The more traditional Concerto no. 3 in G major, allowed the soloist, Nadja Zwiener, to display her remarkable technique, but also a keen lyricism. She was a steady presence at the first desk for the entire evening while the other three violinists – Alice Evans, Julia Kuhn and Adriane Post – switched frequently their positions for their solo contributions.

Always lively and full of rhythmic energy, the Op.3 concertos were a showcase for the significant level of cohesiveness attained by the members of the ensemble. It was particularly evident in the high point of the evening, the fugue introduced by cellist Joseph Crouch in the first movement of the Concerto no. 11 for two violins and cello in D minor, but also in the contrasting textures of the A minor eighth concerto. Interestingly enough, both these works were among those that stirred Johann Sebastian Bach’s interest, the German composer arranging them as concerti for organ.

If L’estro armonico has generally been translated into English as “The Harmonic Inspiration”, “L’estro” has also been rendered as “stimulus”, “whim” or even “frenzy”. Whatever the best equivalent, the title holds a promise of music imbued with energy and innovative spirit. Nonetheless, this melodic ingenuity present in several slow movements – and also in the finale of the A minor – is perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of these works. Bicket and his players did indeed draw attention to such moments where warmth transcends virtuosity.