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The eye of the storm

Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque, Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

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Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (London Festival of Baroque Music, St John’s, Smith Square)

As I wrote my review of The Southbank Sinfonia Baroque’s performance at the London Festival of Baroque Music, a thunderstorm erupted overhead. Flashes of bright white light sparked from my window to announce a deluge of rain. As the concrete streets were drenched, my appetite was wetted for Brecon Baroque’s performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Perhaps his most iconic work, the four violin concerti give musical personalities to the seasons: their majesty, their fragility, their supremacy. 

The final performance as part of the Festival sees the critically acclaimed Rachel Podger lead Brecon Baroque in a night celebrating Vivaldi, culminating with a performance of the Four Seasons. Its tunes have etched themselves into popular culture. Be it those intense rumbling strings from “L’estate” or the melodious opening bars of “La primavera”, the work pops up everywhere from blockbuster Hollywood films to glossy adverts. Naturally, these never do Vivaldi justice. The Four Seasons can only really blossom when experienced alongside the corresponding sonnets that Brecon Baroque read alongside the music. 

Fresh sun is welcomed by effervescent birdsong

Although it is unknown if the words or the music were written first, or if Vivaldi even wrote the accompanying sonnets, the result is almost operatic in nature, creating a lyrical dialogue between the poetic landscape painted in words and the musical one furnished by the instruments. 

Podger brings a distinctive levity to “La primavera”. The fresh sun and delicate warmth is welcomed by effervescent birdsong. This levity does not just glow from the music; she allows the lightness to pulsate through her body, swaying along in a trance like performance with rambunctious physicality.

That very lightness morphs into a thunderous hulking weight in “L’estate” where an approaching storm marches over the horizon towards a lone shepherd. His humanity, manifested by a solitary violin, shrinks in the face of the tempest: Brecon Baroque evoke the Burkean sublime with their ferocious tempo and raging energy. Sometimes Vivaldi’s rich texture is lost in the severity, but it is a necessary sacrifice to experience the vast scale that Vivaldi is able to command through his music. 

Countless poets, artists and philosophers have evoked the Sublime in their work as a means of exploring the relationship between man and nature. Predating Burke’s essays on the Sublime by thirty years or so, Vivaldi’s “L’estate” looms over all of them all like the very thunder clouds that Podger’s performance summons in our imagination, or those that I experienced on Thursday morning. It stands toe to toe with the imagery in Keats’ What can I do to drive away or could accompany Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog as a soundtrack.

Brecon Baroque make light work of it

“L’autunno” gives us a chance to re-group, refocusing our attention to the human world. The penultimate concerto celebrates the bountiful autumnal harvest and takes its audience on a hunt. Vivaldi’s music does not just mimic the sounds, firing bullets and panting prey, but the emotional arc — the thrill of the chase, and the moment of death. The elemental ferocity returns in “L’inverno”. This time it addresses us as humans, speaking down to us, humbling us. The music imitates shivering through string plucking as if the warmth they once created in Spring has disappeared in the winter freeze. Yet James Johnstone’s harpsichord burns like a log fire, welcoming us in from the cold. 

The night does not just belong to the “red priest”. Podger includes a performance of Johann Adolf Hasse’s “Fugue and Grave in G minor”. Prolific in his day, Hasse’s fugue is velvety and complex. Brecon Baroque make light work of it, a testament to their skill but also to Podger’s infectious sense of fun that permeates throughout the evening.

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