It’s an old joke that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. While there is no doubt that Vivaldi adapted many of his concertos for different instruments (as did most of his contemporaries), those he wrote for ‘cello show a high degree of originality and individuality.
One reason for this may have been the close personal connection between the composer and his ‘cello pupils at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. Thanks to records, we know something about these girls – Paolina, Santina, Teresa, Veneranda and others – and their performing styles. The freshness of the ‘cello concertos to contemporary ears also owes something to the fact that many of them are recent discoveries, with scores popping up in France, Germany and Austria over the last couple of decades. Canadian-born ‘cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras has championed these works for many years, and issued a recording of them – accompanied by Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – on the Harmonia Mundi label in 2011.
Two of the concertos are in minor keys – RV416 in G minor, and RV419 in A minor. This gives them a melancholic air, particularly in the brooding central Adagio of the G minor concerto. Queryas was particularly adept at shaping the principal themes in these and in the RV 412 F major concerto with warmth and tenderness, lingering here and there to extemporise, or holding back a little on the tempo. His string sound was light and a touch dry, lending a rustic earthiness to some of the dance-like motifs in the faster movements. The lively, tub-thumping Allegro finale of the A minor concerto was certainly worth hearing a second time in the encore which Queyras gave at the end of the concert.
In between, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin gave stylish performances of Vivaldi’s Concerto for strings in C, RV114 and sinfonias from two of his operas – Giustino and Dorilla in Tempe – plus one from the oratorio San Elena al Calvario by Vivaldi’s older contemporary Antonio Caldara. The Giustino curtain-raiser is most notable for its inclusion of the ‘Spring’ theme from The Four Seasons, but all four works offered the very able players of the Akademie the chance to demonstrate their own skilled responsiveness to the music.
Their dedication to ensemble playing was best borne out in three concertos that did not feature Queyras as the solo star. In Vivaldi’s Concerto for two violins and cello in D minor he was flanked by Akademie leader Georg Kallweit and Gudrun Engelhardt, each giving fine performances of very tricky parts. Prior to that, Queyras was joined by Xenier Löffler, whose easy-going presence on stage matched the effervescence of her playing in Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor for oboe, ‘cello and strings. Löffler was back again on stage after the interval for the solo Oboe Concerto in C, and she equalled Queyras in her emotional intensity and virtuosic assurance to the extent that he almost forgot to return to the stage for his own final appearance.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.