By Arthur Smith
It’s been a good year for the Boston Early Music Festival. Most lauded for its biennial June performances, the group also presents a strong line-up of concerts throughout the year. This season it’s been the finest classical series in town, with quite a roster of established and newer stars (in the latter category is countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who gave a knock-out BEMF performance in October: get a taste via YouTube as he wins a French Grammy in 2007).
On Sunday, February 5, BEMF brought the baroque string ensemble Europa Galante to Sanders Theater in a performance directed by founder, violinist Fabio Biondi. The concert wove together both well-known and obscure baroque and early classical works, all delivered with the combination of ardor and accuracy that is one of the group’s many virtues. For anybody who fears that early music shows might be a parade of audible footnotes—“look! we play this trill this way in Scaccia, but this way in Bach, thrilling, huh?” Biondi and his band are a great tonic. Instrumentation, techniques, and tempo are in the historical tradition, but phrasing is vibrant and attacks are nuanced, even personal. Above all the music comes across as alive, not curated.
Familiar works fared best, with a Haydn rarity, The Concerto for Violin and Harpsichord in F, Hob 18:6, a particular prize. Paola Poncet’s keyboard style captured the wild imagination of the piece (at least from my second row vantage point; friends further back in Sanders couldn’t hear her) and an argument for Haydn not just as a classical master, but as a bridge between baroque and classical styles found compelling evidence. A suite from Handel’s opera Rodrigo included wonderful inward looking moments in a softly spoken Sarabande, and hypnotic Passacaille.
The Bach Double Violin Concerto, played by violinist Andrea Rognoni and Biondi who also soloed in the Haydn and other works, was a more equivocal pleasure. It had a strikingly lovely center movement, Largo ma non tanto, those famous overlapping voices and suspensions even more heartbreaking than usual. But the opening and closing movements had occasional problems: ragged unbalanced ensemble playing; contrapuntal musical lines that weren’t coordinated (or in non-music critic speak, an alarming sense of just “sawing away.”) But these, and some tuning problems here and there, were momentary lapses in a concert that succeeded handsomely overall. BEMF continues to go from strength to strength with performances by Sequentia and The Tallis Scholars upcoming in March. Strongly recommended!
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form. Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center.