Many violin concertos were inspired by great virtuosos, players with dazzling international reputations. Think Niccolò Paganini, Joseph Joachim or Eugène Ysaÿe. But how about Anna Maria della Pietà? The clue is in the name, for Pietà was not her surname but a reference to the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice. Anna Maria was deposited there in 1696, a baby posted through a flap in the wall. By the age of eight, her violin playing had caught the eye – and ear – of Antonio Vivaldi, music director of the all-female “coro” which entertained high class Venetian audiences.

Alina Pogostkina © Nikolaj Lund
Alina Pogostkina
© Nikolaj Lund

The Red Priest composed at least 28 violin concertos for Anna Maria, but although her performances drew the tourists every weekend, she never left the orphanage. This evening’s lively Wigmore Hall programme from the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca featured concertos written for Anna Maria, performed by the young Russian violinist Alina Pogostkina, along with arias composed for another of Vivaldi’s muses, the mezzo-soprano Anna Girò, personified here by feisty Italian contralto Sonia Prina. A third muse – an unidentified flautist – was represented by recorder magician Dorothee Oberlinger.

Anna Girò was not an orphan and Girò was but her stage name. She was born Anna Maddalena Tessieri in Mantua and she began to study with Vivaldi in 1720, going on to create roles in several of his operas. In 1724, she and her elder half-sister moved in with Vivaldi. Was it an innocent relationship – many priests had a live-in lady who acted as housekeeper and companion – or was it something more? Gossip spread and when his opera Farnace was due to be performed in Ferrara, the city’s cardinal barred Vivaldi from entry on account of his loose morals!

Sonia Prina © Allegorica
Sonia Prina
© Allegorica

Whatever the speculation, there’s no doubting that Vivaldi composed some of his finest vocal writing for Girò. Sonia Prina’s pulpy contralto, with tar black low notes, is certainly distinctive, if not conventionally attractive. Gear changes between registers can be a bit hair-raising, but there’s no doubting her ferocious attack which make rage arias such as “Ho il cor già lacero” from Griselda a ballsy tour de force.

Similarly virtuosic, Dorothee Oberlinger’s dexterity astonished in the C major concerto RV443, turning the descant recorder into an entire aviary, from angry robin to trilling goldfinch. Her outrageous third movement cadenza defied belief and any apparent need to draw breath. On the mellower treble recorder, Oberlinger provided obbligato accompaniment to Prina in Ruggiero’s “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” from Orlando furioso, one of Vivaldi’s most tender arias (although not one created for Girò), both artists ornamenting in the da capo.

Dorothee Oberlinger © Dorothee Oberlinger
Dorothee Oberlinger
© Dorothee Oberlinger

The least extrovert soloist of the evening was the one who impressed me the most. Alina Pogostkina has a gentle stage presence, but her tone is sweet and rich, which didn’t always sit naturally alongside the lean strings of the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, who lack the abrasiveness of some Italian period bands. Pogostkina adopted a veiled tone for the Andante of “Il favorito”, during which the non-playing lutenist smiled and nodded appreciatively. The Allegro finale, a near cousin to the hunt which closes “Autumn” from The Four Seasons, galloped along. She captured the drama of the D major concerto nicknamed “L’inquietudine”, especially in the glassy sul ponticello passages in the opening movement. As Oberlinger did in the first half, Pogostkina then joined Prina as obbligato colleague in “Sovente il sole” from the pasticcio work Andromeda liberata. The mirroring of violin and contralto line, each soloist closely watching the other, was delicious.

Prina was eager for her co-stars to enjoy the limelight, each contributing to the head-banging – literally in the contralto’s case – second encore of another bristling rage aria, this time from Juditha triumphans. Stormy passions but plenty of smiles too.