Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi, Wigmore Hall, London – review

One of the most positive developments in baroque musical performance over the past 30 years has been the rise of the period movement in Italy, a laggard when north Europe led the way in the 1960s and 1970s, but now increasingly setting the agenda in a repertoire rooted in Venice, Mantua and Rome. And one of the most positive developments in Wigmore Hall programming in recent seasons has been the emergence of a distinct baroque strand. The two came together in this visit by Europa Galante under its founder-director Fabio Biondi.

The concert was not a success. For starters, the programme was wrong-headed. One Vivaldi concerto can be entertaining. Four are tolerable as long as it’s The Four Seasons. But a whole evening? Biondi programmed six Vivaldi violin concertos as a vehicle for himself, plus two Sinfonias. He is not the first virtuoso to make this mistake – a generation ago James Galway would attract full houses on the strength of his celebrity, only to bore them with wall-to-wall Vivaldi trio sonatas. The problem lies not just in the lack of musical variety in a one-composer programme. Vivaldi’s oeuvre has a formulaic quality – all those exercises in subtle modulation interspersed with flourishes of neat bravura. If these concertos are to be played one after the other, it’s incumbent on the maestro di cappella to break up the similarities by emphasising the contrasts. Biondi – whose playing sounded increasingly scrappy as the evening wore on – let the music fall into a repetitive rut.

His ensemble, comprising 11 strings, lute and harpsichord, made a spirited start with the Sinfonia in G, inhaling and exhaling as one. But the playing quickly lost its edge as they slogged through the concertos – the six selected by Vivaldi’s London publisher from the collection known as La stravaganza. The second half began with another Sinfonia (the three-movement overture to the opera Ercole su’l Termodonte), attractively showcasing the lute in a way that made you want to hear more. Otherwise Biondi’s colleagues were consigned to the role of a uniformed backing band. It’s time some of them shared the limelight: on the evidence of this concert, everyone would profit.

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