A VIVID 'FOUR SEASONS' FROM MONICA HUGGETT AND THE PORTLAND BAROQUE
Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Op. 8, Monica Huggett, violin, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Chan Centre, May 1, 2015
The more and more Vivaldi’s Four Seasons enters the domain of ‘pop classics’, the less one inclines to comment on performances of it. However, this concert was something of an occasion. First, Early Music Vancouver has been sufficiently ‘un-pop’ that, almost unbelievably, they have never sponsored a performance of the complete work in their 45 year history. Second, there was the presence of Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque, who definitely have some new ideas about what an authentic performance might look like. The most important adjustment was the interspersing of other music by Vivaldi, Locatelli and Matthew Locke between the four Op. 8 concertos -- to augment the overall ‘seasons’ experience. Needless to say, few Baroque violinists have more authority than Huggett and she is hardly a foreigner to the work, having played it many times over the years and no more memorably than in her Virgin recording of the late 1980s with the Raglan Players. There the sensitivity and imagination of her solo contribution remain, for me, a benchmark of sorts. But the current ‘celebration’ was different; it almost took us back to the rustic abandon of Italian traversals of Vivaldi’s day, with a large theatrical component too.
One can always tell that something is up when the programme notes contain the four poems that Vivaldi allegedly wrote for the work (as inspired by the paintings of Mario Rossi). Here rustic allusions abound, and the performance mirrored them. Nonetheless, the opening of ‘Spring’ did no more than reinforce my impression of the Portland Baroque as the very distinguished ensemble that they are: technically adept, warm and full of character. There was plenty of rhythmic bite and enthusiasm here, and enviable transparency too. I could always hear subsidiary lines, and Monica Huggett’s ability to make her solos part of a dialogue with the other violins created results that were both finely-proportioned and architecturally sophisticated. Her ornaments in the Largo were as beguiling as we have come to expect.
As ‘Spring’ progressed, more genuinely rustic elements came into play, and these were reinforced by Vivaldi’s perennially-popular ‘Alla Rustica’ concerto that was played immediately after. Everything strongly heated up as we moved to ‘Summer’, much more intense and vivid. Huggett was more angular and earthier in her articulation, at points almost suggesting a real struggle against adversity. There was also hint of the burning heat and fragrance of a summer’s night and occasionally touches of wildness, giving a feeling of narrative and things yet to come.
After the intermission, we started the long descent from summer. The dirge-like opening of the Lament from Locatelli’s Sinfonia certainly provided some pointers, as did the raw musical fibers exposed, but waters calmed in much of the rest of this work, often suggesting the pastoral episodes one might find in Handel, and with lovely sequences of question and answer between the violins. Yet what is ‘Autumn’ without the final peasant’s merrymaking at harvest time, and here we were taken in person into Vivaldi’s portrayal. The poem reads: “The peasants celebrate with song and dance...And full of the liquor of Bacchus….They finish their merrymaking with a sleep.” It says nowhere in the score that musicians must act this out on stage. Yet that is in fact what we got. Monica Huggett threw off some absolutely wild portamenti, mimicked a faltering violinist who played out of tune, strode around in a way that even made Rameau’s ‘chicken’ look sedate, and then appeared to fall asleep. Perhaps some wild virtuosos of the period actually did this! Very unexpected and amusing – and in many ways the music still stood up.
Once this was over, things got much more serious. Transitioning to ’Winter’ through the somber countenances of Mathew Locke’s ‘Curtain Tune’ from The Tempest, the clipped, almost macabre opening of the Vivaldi was set in motion, menacing and almost supernatural. Huggett gave the Adagio lovely articulation, though less sweet than many and still registering some sense of unease. And then everything powered home in a storm of wild energy.
Quite a daring experiment, and cunningly executed and entertaining too. But hardly a Four Seasons for all seasons and all tastes. The musical content came out fresh and illuminating but it seems that, as far as the theatrical goes, a full dramatic staging might work even better. At the end of the concert, I remarked to a close associate of the orchestra that “Monica certainly has a real tiger left in her.” He corrected me by saying: “You mean a lion, don’t you!”
© Geoffrey Newman 2015