Concert Review: Europa Galante — Baroque Music Aficionados Take Note
By Steve Provizer
Europa Galante is small enough to make touring financially viable, yet large enough to successfully undertake “larger” works in a variety of venues.
Violinist Fabio Biondi, founder and leader of Europa Galante, is clearly in control: from tuning, repertoire, and ensemble size down to entrances, exits, and bows. Like touring groups going back to the Baroque era, where musical ensembles usually varied between 10 and 30 pieces, Europa Galante has to be small enough to make touring financially viable, yet large enough to successfully undertake “larger” works in a variety of venues. In Rockport’s Shalin Liu concert hall, with a complement of up to fourteen musicians, Europa Galante was able to deliver, with power and projection, Bach’s Violin Concerto in G Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and Vivaldi’s Viola D’Amore Concerto in D Minor and Concerto in D Major.
Biondi’s group is said to play on “period” instruments and this is the case regarding the flute, harpsichord, and lute. The violins, cellos, and bass appear to be modern instruments, albeit with gut instead of metal strings. This, in tandem with the fact that the orchestra tunes down one half-step (from A to Aflat, for example), makes the sound very different from modern ensembles. It’s softer and less bright; more “natural,” if you will, which would seem to bear out speculation that the sound of the music is closer to how it might have been heard many pre-industrial centuries ago. The question of whether the music is being played as it was “meant to be heard” is open to debate. It is up to the ear of the beholder. In any case, any Baroque ensemble must present music substantive enough in composition and performance to appeal to modern ears, and Europa Galante did.
My taste runs to the solo and smaller group works of the era, rather than the larger concerti. The fractal movements of Bach solo violin pieces, for example, aren’t well served by large ensembles which, to some degree, replace subtlety with power. One of the treats of this concert, played by Biondi, were “Two Assaggi A’ violin Solo” written by the Swedish Baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman. When compared to Bach’s solo partitas and sonatas, Roman’s compositions are characterized by much back-and-forth dialogue between high and low voices on the violin and use of triplets. It’s less exploratory than Bach but, for me, a very satisfying and noteworthy discovery.
As accomplished a violinist as Biondi is, when he was playing in the larger ensembles his responsibilities as leader seemed to occasionally throw off his intonation. In the performance of the Roman pieces, and the smaller group that played Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in B-Flat Major, those intonation issues disappeared. Biondi’s subtle rhythmic variations were deftly woven into the overall sound.
This is a very well-rehearsed ensemble, with skilled musicians and several virtuosi aside from Biondi, including harpsichordist Paola Ponset and cellist Alessandro Andriani. Baroque music aficionados would be well-served to investigate one of their many recordings.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.