Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall; Antonio Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade, La Serenissima

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2012

25 May 2012 5 stars3.5 stars

Jordi Savall

With his ensemble Le Concert des Nations – named after Couperin’s unification of European styles in his innovative collection Les nations – the grand old man of baroque Jordi Savall emphasizes a variety of baroque styles within the communality of high quality music making. Savall, clearly not afraid of rivalry, engages outstanding virtuoso musicians and guides them with full control. Their opening concert of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music has set a standard which would be a hard act to follow anywhere, let alone during a festival of a few days’ duration. Arguably, this concert has also set a tone of evident goodwill, healthy musical competition and harmony among nations. (As the composers of this concert’s programme, Savall’s small band of players also represents several nations.)   

Savall is a great viola da gamba player and a great musician. But he is clearly also a man of theatre and thus seeks to entertain within the strict confines of taste. He is not afraid to add extra instruments even if not specified in the score. I am not certain if percussion was prescribed by Lully (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Suite) or by Boccherini (Quintet in C major) but both Lully’s “Marche” and Boccherini’s “Il tamburo” movements were enhanced by Pedro Estevan’s idiomatic percussion playing. Savall’s sense of theatre was also manifest in his placing that is moving around his players. For instance, in Corelli’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 4 the two solo violins stood at opposite sides of the stage and produced an astonishing musical dialogue. Members of the band separated and re-grouped in each piece during this concert. The constant moving about is always dictated by the musical material but it also maintains theatrical tension. In the March of Biber’s Battalia the solo violinist marched around the stage (while delivering virtuoso violin passages); in Boccherini’s “Il tamburo dei soldati” (Quintet in C major) the solo viola player marched up and down similarly.

Jordi SavallSavall was on stage throughout. He led from his position as the viola da gamba player during the Lully, Corelli, Biber and Avison. However, he conducted the Geminiani and Handel concerto grossos as well as the Boccherini Quintet as a conductor proper (for the want of better words). Savall’s musical insight is a privilege to witness and a joy to experience. But I am not sure if his extraordinary players need a conductor proper, even one of Savall’s caliber. Indeed, these sixteen players seem to speak Savall’s musical language as their mother tongue. The two solo violinists (Manfredo Kramer and Ricardo Minasi) and the solo cellist (Balázs Máté) are breathtaking virtuosos and profound musicians. Xavier Diaz-Latorre (guitar, theorbo) is rock solid as well as highly spirited; Pedro Estevan’s sensitive finger technique as well as impressive button treatment makes him an outstanding baroque percussionist. Savall’s viola da gamba playing is unique in terms of sensitivity as well as virtuosity. In Biber’s Lament (Battalia) his solo gamba line was heartbreakingly beautiful, as was in Avison’s “Siciliana” (Concerto No. 9).

In Savall’s ensemble there is no artificiality masquerading as baroque style. The players sing on their instruments – I cannot imagine more beautiful singing than that of violinist Manfredo Kramer and cellist Balázs Máté in Boccherini’s “Il Rosario” (C major quintet) – they breathe with their musical lines, they inspire us to want to dance with their rhythms, and they entertain with discretion. They achieve perfect harmony.

The forthcoming London Olympic Games seem to have inspired several UK performances of L’Olimpiade, an opera with Pietro Metastasio’s libretto concerning the ancient Olympic games. However, the music comes in two versions. Vivaldi’s version had its UK premier in Serenissima’s concert performance. Following this premier, La Serenissima will tour and stage Vivaldi’s opera in the UK as well as abroad.

Over fifty different composers tackled Metastasio’s libretto during the eighteenth century: they included Pergolesi, Cherubini, Cimarosa and Paisiello, just to name a few.
On Monday 28th May, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre hosts the Venice Baroque Orchestra who will present a pasticcio of the libretto with music by sixteen composers, among them Caldara, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Cherubini, Cimarosa and Paisiello. Then back to Vivaldi’s version: on 3rd June, Garsington Opera premiers their production staged by David Freeman and conducted by Laurence Cummings.

Clearly there is no shortage of UK performances of L’Olimpiade during this Olympic summer but La Serenissima got there first. Their founder-director Adrian Chandler is phenomenal in terms of concentration, multitasking, and energy. Although he was specified as one of the two directors for this performance – the other was harpsichord player James Johnstone – the lion’s share of directing clearly rested with Chandler. He led/conducted by standing in the middle of the ensemble and playing the first violin part while also directing his singers and the whole ensemble. He used two music stands, presumably one for the first violin part and one for the full score. Chandler’s energy was unflagging during the whole performance (and he even managed to sign CDs during the interval of the three-hour opera).

I can only praise Chandler’s musical contribution. His tempi seemed just right for the musical material and his actual violin playing was also of high standard. However, it is debatable whether it was a good idea to conduct from the first violin. I could not help feeling that some of the singers would have felt more confident with a conductor properly guiding them. Not surprisingly, over the course of the long evening, we did hear a few untidy corners of ensemble.

Not all of Chandler’s singers were of equally high standard. None were bad, but some were more experienced and better suited to their roles then others. We heard some wonderful voices but also some which were just not operatic enough (or professional sounding in any genre). All the cast seemed to understand their roles; hence their dramatic presentations were convincing. Nevertheless, only two of the singers were unquestionably all-rounders and highly accomplished: mezzo-soprano Sally Bruce-Payne (Argene) and soprano Mhairi Lawson (Aminta). However, the performance being a UK premiere, I assume that all singers were new to their roles. I hasten to add, that the performance was truly enjoyable.

The casting of Aminta, an aged male tutor, was interesting: just by listening to her gorgeous singing and by looking at her, one would have never guessed that soprano Mhairi Lawson was supposed to be a wise old man. I note with interest that Aminta’s role – as some of the other male roles taken by ladies in Chandler’s production – will be sung by a male in the Garsington production.  

My final praise goes to Serenissima’s horn players: Simon Munday and Jocelyn Lightfoot handled their natural horns superbly. Their pitching (which is far from easy on such instruments), quality of tone, ensemble playing, and breath control on those long sustained notes were immaculate.

Thanks to the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, we are in the right musical mindset for the forthcoming Games.

By Agnes Kory