The Four Nations Ensemble vividly evoked in music the 18th century “Grand Tour” tradition Thursday night. The Aspect Foundation for Music & Arts concert at Bohemian National Hall included music of Vivaldi, Corelli, Pergolesi and others, scored for various arrangements of strings, harpsichord, theorbo, flute, and voice.
Four Nations’ “Fête Galante” concert a year ago featured vocalist Sherezade Panthaki. “Music of the Grand Tour” was graced instead by the ensemble’s regular singer, Canadian soprano Pascale Beaudin, along with flautist Charles Brink. Historian John Brewer illuminated the music and its milieu with an illustrated talk.
The musicians showed an intimate knowledge of, and love for, the sounds that young Northern European men on their “grand tours” of France and Italy encountered, fell for, sometimes brought back to their chillier homelands, and even emulated. Professor Brewer spoke amusingly about English and Teutonic ideals of manliness colliding with the sensuality, fashion-consciousness, and sometimes foppery the northerners found on their southern travels.
The Concerto in A Major, Op. 12 No.1 by the early-18th-century French violinist Jean-Baptiste Quentin was of a piece, though. It carried the sense of a whole person, neither straitjacketed by John Bull nor dandified like a Macaroni. A sighing cello melody defined the opening of the first movement, with the viola and then the two violins adding layers one by one.
Delicate flute lines, scampering violin melodies, and a sweet folksiness characterized the rest of the sensuous Concerto. And if the mood sometimes verged on the effete, the composer’s skill and the ensemble’s forthright, clarifying performance showed that Quentin had a fully realized, unapologetic aesthetic.
Brink and his flute brought out Vivaldi’s genius in the Italian composer’s Flute Concerto in F Major, RV434. In the first movement, birdsong-like passages and fluttery interplay between flute and violins recalled the Four Seasons. The grave “Largo e cantabile” movement felt like a folk tune, with an airy stateliness.
Beaudin lent her silvery voice first to a brief, multipart “Venetian Song” by the German composer Johann Adolf Hasse. She sang with an almost Piaf-esque fervor and a lively stage mien that made her almost as much fun to watch as to hear. The synchrony between Beaudin and lutenist Adam Cockerham added to the joy of the performance.
Beaudin’s main feature was the evenings capstone, Pergolesi’s Orfeo for soprano and strings. The singer feelingly evoked Orpheus’s desperation in the cantata’s captivating recitatives and arias. Deepening the appeal was her variety of techniques and tones. With liquid melismas and easy switches between vibrato and smooth tone, she was always animated, living the music rather than just singing it.
The brilliant final aria in particular bears out harpsichordist Andrew Appel’s claim in the program notes that Orfeo “predicts and illustrates the ‘reform opera’ ideals that characterize the works of Gluck, Paisiello, Jommelli, and finally Mozart.” Pergolesi died so much younger than even Mozart did, in his mid-20s. Among other things this concert was a reminder of how much great music was likely to have come if he’d lived longer. We are lucky to have what we have, and to have interpreters as skilled as these to keep them circulating.
Corelli’s variations on the old tune “La Folia” showcased the fine-tuned, borderline thespian talents of violinist Olivier Brault. This virtuosic exploration of that dark, often-heard little song gave the composer a broad canvas. Thus it’s a workout for the violinist too, and a thrill for listeners, especially when played with as much joie-de-vivre as it was here.
It was a stroke of inspiration on the part of Aspect Foundation impresario Irina Knaster to commission a portrayal in music of the 18th century Grand Tour. The packed house gave the Four Nations Ensemble a standing ovation and left the concert uplifted and a little wiser too.