Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Christian Curnyn

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

27 April 2012 4.5 stars

Robin Ticciati

Hugh MacDiarmid wrote an ironic poem (‘Glasgow 1960’) imagining crowds surging towards Ibrox to hear an abstruse political debate. If it isn’t such a stretch to imagine the Usher Hall sold out for a programme of baroque music – sold out including the choir seats – then it is still a quite remarkable thing to see.
It was a skilfully assembled package. It has been noticeable, in a subtle way, how this season’s programming has been beneficially influenced by the new sponsorship received from Virgin Money. Tonight’s performance was being (very discreetly) filmed for television – by whom I know not – while tomorrow’s will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Ms Benedetti, undoubtedly the star of the evening, was signing CDs after the show.
There was a nice beginning. It is always a bit of a treat when an unfamiliar conductor pulls off one of those just-the-right-moment starts, as Christian Curnyn did with the Gluck overture. And, although it was no doubt a trompe l’oeil, the appearance of having his non-beating hand in his pocket from time to time complemented the aural sense of cool, well-balanced textures and smoothly-drawn arcs. It is a pity that Gluck so seldom enters the concert hall, because his scores respond gratefully to such skilful attention.
For the Vivaldi concerto Curnyn was joined by Nicola Benedetti, a picture of elegance in an ooh-I-say vermilion silk gown on a classically Grecian theme. Undoubtedly her very attractive stage presence is part of her appeal. By all accounts, though, orchestras’ and ensembles’ musicians love working with her because as well as being charming and talented, she is superbly professional in her approach; their managements meanwhile crow contentedly because her star power fills concert halls. Audiences, finally, love her because she communicates a kind of ecstatic serenity. All things considered, she is a tremendous asset to our concert scene.
Vivaldi suits her well. The honeyed sweetness of her tone, matched by an unswerving precision of intonation in those most difficult upper-register passages, can be hypnotically enchanting. Especially when met with some beautifully-graded accompaniment from the SCO, where a notable feature of the first movement was the luxuriously soft piano passages that repaid the restraint shown in the ritornellos. It was a particularly lovely touch to include a theorbo among the continuo, which lent a special richness to the second movement in support of Benedetti’s nightingale-like reverie.
This concerto was one of three that Bach transcribed for organ, and it is a good one – not only in its own terms as a piece of music, but as an example of Vivaldi’s place in the evolution and spread of developing ideas about formal design and its relationship with emotional impact. It’s an impact you can still find on the techno dancefloor today.
Funnily enough there wasn’t so much dance-life to be found in the Rameau suite that followed, despite its explicitly dance-oriented purpose. Not that it was absent altogether by any means, this was just, somehow, a less engrossing set than the two earlier in the year. Still, there were incidents to report, notably the natural horns once more showing just how much of a sinuous melody can be found on the instrument without the aid of valves.

Turning to the Four Seasons, once more Curnyn impressed with a sound that was notably softer than the orchestra created for Richard Egarr the other week – possibly, one might say, with a marginal cost in diminished intensity – but nonetheless exceptionally tight, and with no lack of drama. Benedetti’s Largo in La primavera was once more mesmerising; L’estate gave a real sense of a sultry Italian summer; L’autunno again featured the theorbo in the Adagio, complementing Vivaldi’s jaw-dropping modulations to wonderful effect; finally, L’inverno sported an unusually brisk Largo before a characteristically spirited final Allegro brought the performance to its conclusion.

By Peter Cudmore

Sponsored by Virgin Money

Glasgow performance 27 April broadcast live by Radio 3 ‘In Concert’