By Philip A. Metzger Special to The Morning Call
In the early days of “authentic” performances of early music, i.e. 18th century and before, the practice had the reputation of seeking rigid historical accuracy at the expense of musical vitality. As the concert by the Venice Baroque Orchestra demonstrated Saturday night, that dichotomy is long gone. Having learned to recreate the sound of instruments as they would have been heard, musicians now are able to use what they know to intensify musical values, as a delighted audience discovered at Lafayette College’s Williams Center.
The orchestra consisted of seven violins, a viola, a cello, a six-string double bass, lute and harpsichord. Before the 19th century, when larger halls required more volume, gut strings (usually made from the intestine of a sheep or goat) were satisfactory, and these certainly provided a perfect volume for the size the hall in Williams.
Other aspects of their playing included more lightly tensioned bows, which were held a couple of inches up from the frog. Most noticeable was the fact that the cellist held his instrument between his leg. The spike did not become necessary until louder volume required more pressure on the strings.
The result of all this is a sweet, mellow sound that blends beautifully.
Venice Baroque’s program included three works by Vivaldi — after all, a native and Venice’s most famous composer — including a sinfonia and a flute concerto — and a string concerto by Albinoni and one for oboe by Alessandro Marcello, Benedetto’s older brother.
Katharine Suske soloed, in the Vivaldi on recorder and in the Marcello on oboe. In the 18th century the oboe, like the recorder, had no keys, or at most one for the pinkie. This resulted is articulations that are often more fluid, but less mechanically precise, as the player slides a finger off a hole, or covers one halfway, to produce the desired note. That’s part of the style of playing, of which Suske was a master. I in particular took great pleasure in the dark, nasal, qualities of her oboe sound.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the group’s playing of Vivaldi’s most popular work, The Four Seasons. One might say the work is so popular it’s played to death, but Venice Baroque truly played it to life. Birds sang chirpily, dogs barked gruffly, a summer storm truly sizzled (making the thunder of a real storm outside seem prosaic by comparison), leaves dropped, well, the way you’d want them to drop, and winter snow and wind made everyone, I’m sure, glad that spring is upon us.
Giulio Plotino stepped from the ensemble to provide the absolutely sparkling solo line. Afterwards the audience delighted in two encores before the players left the stage.
It was the freshest, most delightfully musical performance of the work I believe I’ve ever heard.