One could be excused for using the word “breathtaking” more than once in describing the performance of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and internationally acclaimed guest artist, French harpist, Xavier de Maistre at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The program provided the basis for an extraordinary evening of music making from de Maistre and the outstanding musicians of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
In putting together the program, “Vivaldi’s Venice”, de Maistre and the ABO have presented the audience with an enchanting and varied selection of well- and lesser-known works of Vivaldi and other composers of the Baroque era.
Featured were works originally written for other solo instruments (violin, lute and oboe) and transcribed for harp and orchestra. These included the outstanding highlight of the concert – Vivaldi’s L’Inverno (Concerto in F Minor) from The Four Seasons, transcribed for harp and orchestra by Xavier de Maistre.
The concert began with a flourish with the ABO’s vigorous performance of Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in C Major, the overture to Vivaldi’s opera, L’Olympiade written in 1734. This was followed by Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major. Transcribed for harp from the original score for lute, the deeper, softer resonance of the harp’s middle register came as somewhat of a surprise when it entered after a short and lively introduction by the orchestra. Contrasting as they did with the vibrancy of the upper strings, some of the harp’s more intricate and delicate phrases seemed, at first, rather muted. This was soon addressed in de Maistre’s lusciously expressive interpretation of the Largo and the joyful, dancing quality of Vivaldi’s Allegro where the brilliance of de Maistre’s technique was able to shine.
De Maistre’s total command of the harp was clearly demonstrated in his performance of the two works in the program written for solo harp, and which are among the most beautiful and demanding pieces in the harp repertoire. Both La Mandoline by the early 19th century acclaimed English harpist, Elias Parish Alvars, and the Sonata in C Minor by Giovanni Battista Pescetti, were performances to treasure. Here, de Maistre’s musicality and virtuosity was brought to the fore. He was clearly in his element – whether navigating the showering arpeggios (the word itself derived from the Italian word “arpa” for harp) or producing breathtakingly delicate pianissimos and the most lightly and elegantly formed ornamentations. Everything was easily within de Maistre’s astonishingly fluid and seemingly effortless style.
Nor did the contributions by the ABO itself disappoint. Their world premier performance of Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori’s Concerto Grosso in D Major included a solo passage for harpsichord that revealed the full expressive capabilities of the instrument in the hands of Paul Dyer, the ABO’s conductor, co-founder and Artistic Director. The ABO’s exquisite ensemble playing was once again on display in their performance of the captivating Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni or Remo Giazotto (the origin remains in question). Here the growling lines of the chamber organ provided a haunting contrast to the upper strings and rounded out the tonal colour of the orchestra.
The performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Major, originally written for two harpsichords and transcribed for harp, has to be mentioned for the sheer delight of its uplifting chords and the driving rhythmic melody of the Allegro, so obviously enjoyed by harpist and audience alike. Not so successful perhaps, was the transcription of Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto in D Minor. Originally written for oboe and orchestra, this was arguably less well adapted for the harp. Despite excellent and moving legato playing from the ABO, the piece as a whole seemed to demand at times a sharper, crisper sound than that produced by the Lyon and Healy 85 model harp.
A much more successful transcription and the undoubted highlight of the concert was the magnificent finale: the performance of Vivaldi’s L’Inverno (Winter), Concerto in F Minor, which forms the last in Vivaldi’s eternally popular work, The Four Seasons. The energetic, sparkling drive of the concerto, with its dramatic contrasts and variation in mood, showed off de Maistre’s incredible talent at its most audacious. The Allegro was nothing less than breathtaking, especially the moment when there was the momentary suspension of the pulse before the harp re-enters in a frenzy of cascading notes. A truly electrifying performance where the icicles could veritably be heard breaking and the ice cracking under our feet.
In de Maistre’s hands, this transcription seems perfectly suited to the 20th century harp. Full credit must be given to de Maistre for daring to bring a fresh approach to this perennially popular work. It is a truly exceptional addition to the harp repertoire that will be enjoyed by audiences and musicians for many years to come.
Maree Gladwin and Frances Thiele attended the program “Vivaldi’s Venice” performed by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and featuring harpist, Xavier de Maistre, at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 8, 2020.