Exactly three years ago, Baroque violinist Andrew Manze burst onto the Triangle scene to wow the early music aficionados with a brand of fiddling the likes of which we'd never heard before, known as the Stylus Phantasticus. A loose genre of Baroque instrumental music, related to the fantasia, unconstrained by strictures of form, the Stylus Phantasticus is suffused with, among other things, over-the-top ornamental improvisation. Last year, Manze brought his phenomenal wizardry more mainstream (at least in early music terms), taking over the baton of Trevor Pinnock's English Concert. During this visit, instead of concentrating on reviving arcane music and performance practices, Manze aimed to get us to hear familiar music in unfamiliar ways.
In a program concerted loosely around works either performed in or written for Vienna, dominated by works of Mozart and Vivaldi(!), The English Concert made one of the most convincing argument we've heard in support of why we should listen to music performed on period instruments. This string ensemble of 18 players (including harpsichord) performs with astounding precision of both intonation and dynamics. And it is in the latter where the beauty of the period instruments was most in evidence. Manze, conducting from his own fiddle, demanded the most subtle dynamic renderings which, combined with the more mellow sound of non-metallic strings, created a warmth of tone that even Page Auditorium couldn't damage.
The English Concert began with a Mozart chestnut, the Divertimento No. 3, K.138 in F major. This is one of those pieces that gets a lot of easy listening air time, usually with a Mantovani-type band. But when played in more muted colors, its freshness is revived.
After the Mozart, Manze preceded each number with oral comments from the stage, most of which merely repeated the written program notes. They were, nevertheless, useful, especially for the next number - the one odd man out of the bunch - the Serenata con alter arie (Serenade with other arias) by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. Now pretty ensconced on the list of obscure composers, Schmelzer was the first non-Italian Kapellmeister to a Holy Roman Emperor, one of the most famous violinists in mid seventeenth century Europe and composer of a slew of court ballets, of which this may have been one. The Serenata , as Manze put it, seemed "to be telling a story." Its five movements, comprise a Serenata , followed by a movement that seems to be an accompaniment to some sort of mime, entitled Erlicino (a variant spelling of Arlequino or Harlequin), Ciaccona , Campanella and Lamento . In the middle of the Ciaccona , the upper strings play bell-like pizzicati (the Campanella ) said to be in imitation of Austrian funeral bells. While not much to write home about musically, this kind of musical trivia is always fun, especially when played as if the musicians think it's every bit as important as Mozart.
The English Concert opened the second half of the program with another Mozart work, this time a late one, from the older, more somber - and more academic - side of his character, the Adagio and Fugue in c minor, K 546. In his introductory comments, Manze gave a brief refresher course on the fugue, in which he illustrated Mozart's combined genius and debt to Bach.
Conceding that there might have been a few raised eyebrows and bored sighs among audience members seeing three Vivaldi concerti on one program, Manze explained that two of the three, Concerto, L'amoroso , in E major, RV 271 and Concerto in c minor, RV 202 were "special" in that they had both belonged to a manuscript set of twelve personally presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI during the monarch's trip to Trieste, and were ostensibly among the composer's most prized works. While the E major Concerto seemed somewhat mawkish to us - in keeping with its title - the c minor Concerto contained some of Vivaldi's more adventurous writing.
The third Vivaldi number, which ended the first half of the program, was the Concerto in b minor for four violins, RV 580, a great vehicle for Manze to show off the virtuosity of his cadre. This Concerto is rarely played in concert because of the technical demands on the four soloists to maintain a seamless quality, on the one hand, when playing seriatim, and lockstep precision when playing simultaneously. It's also a wonderful piece to watch, because, although it is familiar to most music lovers, it's difficult on recordings to hear where and how the soloists' parts fit together. Most listeners know this concerto better in J.S. Bach's transcription for four harpsichords, BWV 1065.
To thundering applause, Manze and company gave us an encore, the last movement of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik . A cheery sendoff to an enthusiastic audience.