La Serenissima: Vivaldi Double Concertos

Vivaldi Double Concertos
La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler 

St Martin-in-the-Fields. 11 February 2023

In what was described as “a carnival of double concertos from 18th century Venice – music of fantasy, flamboyance and virtuosity to the power of two”, La Serenissima and its “charismatic founder” Adrian Chandler bought its “no-holds-barred flamboyance” to St Martin-in-the-Fields. It was a reminder of St Martin’s endless ‘Vivaldi by Candlelight’ tourist concerts, although their concert promotions are rather more elevated these days. As the publicity blurb enthused: “Baroque Venice was a city of doubles – of shimmering reflections and masked revellers. And since nothing succeeds like excess, when Vivaldi wrote concertos for two soloists, the results were spectacular: a carnival of colour, illusion and sparkling sonic conversation”.

Vivaldi composed around 65 double concertos, with 40 for pairs of identical instruments, 30 of which were for two violins. This programme featured six double concertos for cellos, oboes, flutes and violins, and concluded with a concerto for seven soloists.

The opening concertos included three pairs of solo instruments, with recorders taking over from oboes for the middle movement. The hesitatingly fugal opening movement was contrasted by a punchy concluding Allegro built on an arpeggio motive. It was not the most harmonically adventurous piece ever composed, but it made for a rousing start to the evening. By far the most interesting piece of the evening was the following concerto for two solo cellists. It appears in a manuscript alongside music for sacred purposes, suggesting that it also had a religious purpose itself. If that was the case, it must have been for a particularly powerful bit of Biblical rhetoric – it was full of passion and power, and was superbly played by Vladimir Waltham and Carina Drury.

Until we reached the final Concerto ‘Il Proteo ò il Mondo al Rovescio’, the other pieces were rather workaday essays in Vivalian form, although the Concerto in B flat did show some harmonic and structural interest in its proto-Galant style. It also broke the unfortunate chain of C and G keys (each with more than their share of tonic-dominant progressions) and endless sequential circles of fifths which had so far dominated the proceedings.

The concluding Il Proteo ò il Mondo al Rovescio (Proteus or the world turned upside down) was inspired by the “shape-shifting river-god” Proteus. The first movement is particularly inventive, with a series of rather clever musical allusions to the Carnival idea of a world turned upside down – an appropriate piece to hear near the start of Carnival season. One of a number of first movement oddities was the violas playing a sequence of drones throughout. The sound was particularly fascinating with a solo violin, flute and oboe on the left and solo cello, flute and oboe on the right. They nearly always played in unison and octaves (up or down) with each other. The antiphonal contrasts also lifted this piece well above the often rather predictable Vivaldi sound. Although more conventional in structure, the final Allegro has a curious ‘false start’ and an interesting musical texture.

The instrumentalists of La Serenissima were on very good form, with particular moments coming from the cellists already mentioned, oboists, Mark Baigent and Rachel Chaplin, violinists Oliver Cave and Sam Staples, and, of course, Adrian Chandler. The core continuo group of Robin Bigwood, harpsichord, Linda Sayce, theorbo, and Vladimir Waltham also excelled. La Serenissima plays in a particularly forthright style that may, or may not, reflect the playing of the young ladies of the Ospedale della Pietà. In the double violin concertos, the balance between the two violin soloists was not always equal, with the 2nd violin’s slightly more refined and sensitive manner not always able to compete with the vigour of the 1st violin.

Concerto for 2 flutes, strings & continuo in C, RV 533
Concerto for 2 violins, strings & continuo in G, RV 516
Concerto for 2 oboes, strings & continuo in C, RV 534
Concerto for 2 violins, strings & continuo in B♭, RV 524
Concerto for 2 cellos, strings & continuo in G minor, RV 531
Concerto ‘Il Proteo ò il Mondo al Rovescio
for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, violin, cello, harpsichord strings & continuo in F, RV 572

This programme will form the basis of their forthcoming album, following up their 2018 Vivaldi x2 CD and will tour to the following venues:

Friday 17th February, 7:30pm, Bath Bach Fest. St Mary’s Bathwick, Bath.
Tuesday 14th March, 7:30pm, Campden Music. St James’ Church, Chipping Campden