The combination of Scotland’s star violinist and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was irresistible. It didn’t disappoint.
There aren’t many dream tickets in classical music, but the combination of star violinist Nicola Benedetti and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is surely one. It sold out twice over in Saffron Hall, the superb new concert hall in the grounds of the County High School in Saffron Walden, and could have sold out again five times over.
Before Scotland’s Greatest Musical Export appeared, the Basel-based orchestra La Cetra warmed us up with a couple of Baroque concertos. They included one by Vivaldi with a fascinating irregular bass, like something out of Purcell.
This band play on old-style stringed instruments, which gives their sound an amazing vigorous clatter, flavoured with sensuous thrummings from the bass lute or theorbe. At the centre stood harpsichordist Andrea Marcon, a genial old bird who directed things like a big-band leader, dropping in the odd chord to add colour.
Some period orchestras use shock and awe tactics in Baroque concertos, firing out the motoric rhythms with machine-gun energy. There was plenty of that here, but it never became wearing because it was balanced by a delightful fantasy and a folk-like waywardness in the rhythms (though the band has caught that unfortunate mannerism of making a pause before the final chord in a fast piece, which has spread through ‘period performance’ like a virus).
Then in came Benedetti, but not to hog the limelight. To begin with she shared it with the three lead violinists of La Cetra, in Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins. They were all superb, but there was no doubting who had the most incisive attack and brilliant tone.
In Vivaldi’s violin concerto nick-named Grosso Mogul (for reasons nobody knows) Benedetti gave the plaintive phrases in the slow movement an operatic eloquence. She’s clearly immersed herself in the special style of playing appropriate to this music, but she’s no purist. In the slow movement she sweetened the tone with more vibrato than some Baroque violinists would allow.
All this was terrific, and a reminder that there’s more to Vivaldi than the Four Seasons. But the Four Seasons is what everyone was dying to hear, and after the interval Benedetti and the orchestra delivered them, with amazing panache.
The energetic moments like the storm in Summer were astonishing, passing by in a hurricane of rapid notes. More winning were the moments when the players could show off a jazz-like flexibility, like the one in Autumn when Benedetti threw a phrase and the orchestra caught it with perfect grace.
Sometimes orchestras are so keen to make The Four Seasons sound fresh and new they overdo the music’s oddities. Here the music-making always seemed natural and unforced.