Saturday, 16 January 2016

Nutty bassoon, trumpet like violin and Manchester's seasons - Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima at the Wigmore Hall

Peter Whelan - photo Martin Usborne
Peter Whelan - photo Martin Usborne
Vivaldi concertos for bassoon and for violin 'in tromba marina', I Quattro Stagioni; Peter Whelan, Adrian Chandler, La Serenissima; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Contrasts in textures with concertos for bassoon and for a reconstructed violin 'in tromba marina' alongside the Manchester Four Seasons

A significant figure in Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima's concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday 15 January 2016 was someone of whom most people have probably never heard. Count Wenzel von Morzin (Václav hrabě z Morzinu) was a Bohemian nobleman (chamberlain to Emperor Charles VI), who had a notable orchestra. Vivaldi was Morzin's maestro di musica in Italia, commissioned to send Morzin new compositions. We knew all this from the dedication of the Opus 8 concertos which Vivaldi had published in Amsterdam in 1725 (the set which included Le Quattro Stagioni) and from the fact that the bassoon concerto RV496 is inscribed 'per Ma. de Morzin' and seems to have been written for the bassoonist in Morzin's orchestra, Johann Anton Reichenauer. Vivaldi wrote 39 bassoon concertos, many or most of which are assumed to be written for Reichenauer because the Ospedale della Pieta (where Vivaldi worked) does not seem to have owned any bassoons.

Adrian Chandler - photo Eric Richmond
Adrian Chandler
photo Eric Richmond
So Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima, performed two of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos written for Morzin, Concerto in G minor 'per Maestro de Morzin'  RV496 and Concerto in B flat RV501 'La notte' with soloist Peter Whelan, alongside Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni with Chandler playing the solo part. Le Quattro Stagioni were played in the Manchester version, using the contemporary manuscript in the Henry Watson Music Library as a source rather than the published Amsterdam version. Also in the programme were Vivaldi's Concerto in G for violin 'in tromba marina' RV311 and Concerto in D for violin 'in tromba marina' RV221.

The tromba marina was a single stringed instrument which was supposed to sound like a trumpet. Vivaldi's violino in tromba marina seems to have been an instrument which he invented (the only references to it are in sources related to the Pieta). Based on surviving evidence Michael Talbot and Adrian Chandler have come up with a modern reconstruction of the instrument, which was specially made by luthier David Rattray. So for the violino in tromba marina concertos Adrian Chandler played a violin which had three brass wound strings on a specially designed bridge which resonated in a raspy manner. The resulting sound was coarser than a regular violin and quite a lot louder. Adrian Chandler in his spoken introduction described it as having a sound that was not particularly refined and thought Vivaldi was having a bit of fun. Certainly the two concertos for the instrument that Chandler and La Serenissima played seemed to reflect the composer spending rather too long at a country hoedown.

We started with the Concerto in G for violin 'in tromba marina' RV311, and the opening Allegro proved crisp and bouncy with Chandler's solo recalling very much country fiddle playing with lots of double stopping. The Andante was a lovely, typically Vivaldian slow movement and the relative loudness of the solo instrument meant that Vivaldi's accompaniment could be stronger than usual. The Allegro finale returned us to the mood of the country dance.
I remember reading somewhere that Vivaldi's bassoon concertos are difficult on a modern bassoon, so that on a period one they are fiendish. You can see why. Peter Whelan's bassoon had very little ironmongery on it compared to a modern one, so that his virtuosity was very much dependent on the dexterity of his fingers. The Concerto in G minor 'per maestro de Morzin' RV496 introduced us to the wonderfully chestnutty sound of Whelan's bassoon (and his not inconsiderable dexterity).  The opening Allegro had the bassoon playing along with the bass line in the initial ritornello though Whelan appeared to be playing a more elaborated version. And then we were off, with the solo passages generally accompanied by continuo alternating with full string passages. The virtuoso solo was perky, pawky and extremely characterful. In the slow movement Largo, Peter Whelan accompanied by just continuo showed us what a lovely shapely singing line the bassoon could produce. For the final Allegro the vigorous string section made a good strong sound (the ensemble had sixteen players in all) which alternated with equally vigorous passagework for the bassoon.

A tromba marina, the sound of which Vivaldi's violin 'in tromba marina' was meant to evoke
A tromba marina, the sound of which
Vivaldi's violin 'in tromba marina' was meant to evoke
The Concerto in D for violin 'in tromba marina'  opened with a highly rhythmic Allegro though here there was also some quite delicate solo writing too as well as some lively string crossing. The lyrical Andante had an accompaniment with a lovely lift to the rhythm, whilst the Allegro finale returned to the world of the vigorous country dance. Both violino in tromba marina concertos are quite short and it is clear that the instrument required a great deal of tuning, but the results were surprisingly intriguing and certainly invigorating.

The first half concluded with Vivaldi's Concerto in B flat RV501 'La notte'. This seems to have had some sort of programme, though we are not exactly clear what but some of the movements have names - Fantasmi (Ghosts), Il Sonno (Sleep), Sorge l'Aurore (Dreams of dawn), and the piece is written in a sequence of multi-sectional movements making the structure more continuous feeling and more fluid than the strict three-movement concertos. The opening Largo had atmospheric staccato chords with little runs for the bassoon which developed into the vigorous passagework of the following Andante molto. Much of the initial sections were devoted to bassoon passagework but in the middle slow section we had a lovely lyrical bassoon solo made of long mobile lines, over sustained string chords. The final movement contrasted the textures of lively string cascades and some wonderfully even bassoon runs.

The second half of the concert was devoted to I Quattro Stagioni. No manuscript for this survives (it was presumably sent to Amsterdam for copying) and most performances are based on the 1725 publication. But in 1726 Vivaldi had a set of parts copied by his father (who did a lot of copying for him) for presentation to Cardinal Ottoboni. On Ottoboni's death his music collection was sold to pay for his debts and part of his was bought by an English agent for Charles Jennens. This ended up in the collection of the Earls of Aylesford before being bought by Sir Newman Flower (a name which looms large in the history of Handel's manuscripts) who left the collection to the Henry Watson Music Library in Manchester. This manuscript version differs in many details from the published source and Adrian Chandler feels that it is closer to Vivaldi's intentions.

Adrian Chandler's solo was very much primus inter pares and not over spotlit as in many performances, so that the opening movement of La primavera became more about the three solo violins rather than the primary solo. In the slow movement Chandler revealed a slim yet elegant lyrical sound which contrasted well with the viola's striking dog (actually an attribute of melancholy). The final movement returned us to the country dance, but a far more sophisticated one here and many of the underlying details were subtly different to what we remembered. L'estate opened at a steady pace but full of character and it was clear by now that Chandler and his players were very intent on giving us a highly characterful musical narrative with a strong sense of personality. This continued in the elegant slow movement, before the vivid excitement and brilliant articulation of the Presto finale.

L'autonno started with another sophisticated country dance, with bright tones and crisp rhythms. Here we were able to appreciate the way the continuo cello Gareth Deats matched Chandler's sense of character so that many sections of the concertos were almost duets. The slow movement was all about the mixing of different textures (sustained strings, spread chords in harpsichord) than melody, whilst the Allegro brought story-telling to the fore with the different qualities of articulation and attack. L'inverno opened with the famous cold scene, here quiet but vivid, whilst the slow movement was richly textured with an elegant solo before the varied yet vivid finale.

I am not sure that I would want Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima's highly personal and very characterful approach to I Quattro Stagioni as my regular CD listening (but you can find out for yourselves as they have released the programme on disc ) but in concert it made highly involving and refreshing listening.

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