Europa Galante with Fabio Biondi (violin/director) and Nardus Williams (soprano) at National Concert Hall Dublin on 14 October 2023
It’s always exciting to be in the National Concert Hall for its International Concert Series. Tonight is no exception, with the starry early music ensemble Europa Galante making its Irish debut with director/violinist Fabio Biondi – joined tonight by British soprano Nardus Williams. The programme – entitled ‘Nature’s Voice’ – is based around the four solo violin concertos that make up Antonio Vivaldi’s everlasting ‘Four Seasons’, alongside vocal music by Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel.
Any idea that this is a new concept sadly vanishes when you realise virtually the same programme was pioneered by the UK-based Academy of Ancient Music ten years ago or more. In their hands, this combination of Vivaldi with music from the London stage perhaps made more sense, suggesting a view of Vivaldian nature from a British perspective. Recycled by this Italian ensemble, the same selection of music seems derivative, and a lost opportunity. Why choose this context for Vivaldi’s music?
Biondi’s approach to the concertos is akin to a Straussian bandmaster, busily conducting his musicians with his bow before turning his back on them to present the solo passagework. Some effects are wonderful, with dreamily exquisite ensemble playing, creating a leisurely, soft-grained hue from the very opening. At other times, he drives a rich sound from the bass instruments to dramatic effect. In the slow movement of the Autumn concerto, the texture is pared back to near-impressionism, turning the movement into a kind of warped harpsichord fantasia (delightfully played by Paola Poncet), haunted by subdued strings.
All the same, this music is so well-known as to be unforgiving, and Biondi’s occasional slips and moments of wayward tuning present unfortunate distractions. A little more collegiality – perhaps inviting another player to take the soloist’s role – might have helped.
Nardus Williams, winner of the Rising Talent award at last year’s International Opera Awards, is the other major draw. An artist building an exciting stage career, it is clear that we are in the presence of a rich and exciting voice. The selection (described as a ‘suite’) from Henry Purcell’s opera ‘The Fairy Queen’ begins with two airs from the opera’s Masque of the Seasons – Thus the ever grateful Spring and See, see my many-colour’d fields (normally sung by tenor and here transposed), their texts reinforcing the seasonal theme.
Williams’s approach is crisp and driven, and the weighty power of her voice risks riding over the gently expressive possibilities of these pieces. The lack of intelligible words adds to this impression, though it may be a matter of nerves as her engagement improves with the sleep air See, even Night herself is here, her tone beautifully matched by the ensemble, before finishing with the birthday fanfare Now the night is chas’d away. Interspersed with two short dances, it is odd that the selection omits the fifth-act ‘Plaint’, one of Purcell’s finest soprano airs and the opera’s expressive highlight.
The three Handel arias Williams sings give a good sense of the composer’s range, and continue the theme of nature imagery. Like clouds, stormy winds then impelling, from the English version of Handel’s first oratorio ‘Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’, is darkly expressive – though, again, intelligibility is a problem for the singer. It doesn’t help that the words “disdainful” and “resentment” are those most easily heard and, with the Venetian-style string band accompanying, one can’t help wondering if the original Italian might have worked better. Williams produces better results with the two operatic arias – in particular the fast-paced Da tempeste from ‘Giulio Cesare’ – but, for all her elegance of tone and spectacular accuracy, the effect is strangely uninvolving, as if she might have been more comfortable in a different context or singing different material.
Even with all these reservations, there is no denying the beautiful impression that the music evokes when performed by artists of this calibre, and the audience responds enthusiastically. One can’t help wondering, however, what more might have been achieved – and whether this really reflects Europa Galante at its best.
Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in E major, RV269 ‘Spring’
Henry Purcell: Suite from The Fairy Queen
Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in G minor, RV315 ‘Summer’
George Frideric Handel: ‘Like clouds, stormy winds them impelling’, from The Triumph of Time and Truth; ‘Finche d’un zeffiro soave’, from Ezio
Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in F major, RV293 ‘Autumn’
Handel: ‘Da tempeste’, from Giulio Cesare
Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in F minor, RV297 ‘Winter’
Europa Galante, Nardus Williams (soprano), Fabio Biondi (violin/director)