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English Concert and Harry Bicket

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Mr. Corelli in London
English Concert

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Vivaldi, Violin Concertos, op. 4
Rachel Podger
After throwing us for a loop with an excellent recital by the Arcanto Quartet on Wednesday night, the Library of Congress followed up with a knockout punch, a stop by The English Concert on their U.S. tour. The program was a Baroque smorgasbord, a little English lute song, some Vivaldi concertos, and solo complaints by wronged women as the main courses. The ensemble hardly needs any introduction to early music lovers: their discography includes a vast number of classic recordings, some of the best early attempts to perform historical music on period instruments, under former leader Trevor Pinnock, as well as many recordings added to the list in recent years, under Andrew Manze and other directors.

Only a large handful of the musicians are on the tour, but with Harry Bicket at the keyboard and directing, it was a taut and unified performance. Violinist Rachel Podger served with panache as leader of the ensemble, playing with the bravura technique and clean tone missed at times in the solos of Chiara Banchini with Ensemble 415 last week. With a sweet sound that was laser-precise, Podger sliced her way through Vivaldi's trio sonata on the repeating bass pattern known as La Follia (op. 1/12, RV 63), which easily outclassed Ensemble 415's performance of the same piece. William Carter provided a Spanish-flavored improvisation on Baroque guitar as an introduction, setting up a performance that preserved the occasionally manic energy of "La Follia." Podger gave an even greater display of virtuosity in Vivaldi's D major violin sonata known as "Il Grosso Mogul." She treated the final solo episode of both outer movements with the freedom of a cadenza, playing with blinding speed and dazzling technical polish, while giving the enigmatic slow movement ("Recitativo: Grave") an exotic, expressive turn, responding to the tremolos and Turkish-flavored folk ensemble sound of the whole group. Cellist Jonathan Manson also had a pleasing turn in Vivaldi's C minor cello concerto, RV 401, a rather somber piece that breaks with most of the stereotypes of what to expect from a Vivaldi concerto (indeed, he did not write the same concerto 500 times).

Other Reviews:

Alex Baker, English Concert at the Library of Congress (Wellsung, October 14)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Do It, England: The English Concert at the Library of Congress (DMV Classical, October 16)

Joe Banno, Starry English Concert rivets with Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Handel (Washington Post, October 18)
The other guest star of this tour is the English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who presented much the same face for the three suffering heroines: the trope of the abandoned woman's lament, in the style of Ovid's Epistulae Heroidum, was an important one in the Baroque period. Coote's voice is a powerhouse that tended to be a little too rounded and puissant for an intimate venue and with exaggerated diction that also sounded like overkill -- both to her advantage in a place like the Metropolitan Opera, for example. The final selection, Handel's dynamic solo cantata La Lucrezia, was best suited to these qualities: the dramatic plunge to a volcanic lower range, the ornate embellishments on da capo repeats, the cleanly articulated agility of melismas, the rafter-splitting high note at the end. Coote's dramatic side served her well in Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, although as essentially a long recitative, some ornamentation would have been welcome. In a set of Dowland lute songs, her voice simply seemed two or three sizes too large, and again a simpler tone (her tendency to scoop instead of hitting the pitch in the center seemed to be used as a sort of expressive device) and embellishments on the strophic repeats would have been preferred. William Carter's richly ornamented performance of Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan was the highlight of that set.

The next concert at the Library of Congress is in the same excellent vein, featuring the Talich Quartet (October 21, 8 pm) in quartets by Beethoven, Janáček, and Dvořák. Alice Coote returns to Washington next month for a recital sponsored by Vocal Arts D.C. (November 4, 7:30 pm), in a program of more recent British songs at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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