★★★★★ Impeccable artistry from Italy’s oldest chamber ensemble.

QPAC Concert Hall
July 18, 2015

Founded in 1951, I Musici is Italy’s oldest chamber group, and also one of the most respected ensembles in existence today. Their 2015 visit to Brisbane is a part of the 2015 Queensland Music Festival, and an appreciative and enthusiastic audience warmly received the tight knit, twelve-part chamber group (who have, since their inception, existed without a conductor so as to ensure an egalitarian relationship among the twelve). When I was a child, my parents owned a Laserdisc of the group’s famous music video of The Four Seasons, shot in Venice in the 1970s, and as a result, hearing the group live was a somewhat nostalgic experience for me. However, the group’s performance of Vivaldi’s magnificent work was nevertheless fresh, dynamic and brimming with energy.

The group opened, appropriately, with Vivaldi, the composer with whom they are most regularly associated. The short, three movement Sinfonia in C Major, from the beginning of Vivaldi’s 1724 opera Il Giustino, opens with immediate energy in the sparkling, hurtling opening theme. The first movement gave way to a beautifully contrasting slow movement, an Andante featuring a melodic violin line with steady accompaniment from the rest of the group. This movement was perfectly balanced, and performed with sensitivity and grace. After the Andante, I Musici launched without pause into the festive, 46-second third movement that brought the opening work to a scintillating finish. It was a fitting first work to establish from the outset the group’s precision, range, and stylistic purity.

Next up was the reliably enjoyable Overture to The Barber of Seville, arranged for strings by Rossini’s contemporary Vincenzo Gambaro. In tribute to I Musici’s affinity as an ensemble, each group of instruments sounded as one rich voice. It’s evident that lacking a conductor is no impediment when the members of a group are so attuned to one another; with frequent glances across the ensemble and absolute professionalism, I Musici demonstrated that unanimity on technical and interpretive questions is achievable amongst twelve individual musicians. The poignant and sensitive Prelude to Act One from Verdi’s La Traviata provided an initial contrast to the lively Rossini with its divided strings and sense of pathos, before launching into more buoyant paraphrases of Violetta’s various arias.

Finishing up the first half were the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s popular Cavalleria Rusticana and the opening Sinfonia from Verdi’s Nabucco. The Mascagni provided a gentle, quiet moment, showcasing I Musici’s glorious control of beautiful melodies, and there was some especially lovely work from the lower strings in the Verdi. Ultimately, the first half, while impeccably delivered, was somewhat fleeting. While flawlessly performed, the musical choices were perhaps overly safe: overtures and intermezzos from the famous works of well-known, highly popular composers. From a group with such ability, and prior to a second half more or less guaranteed to be a hit, it would have been exciting to hear some riskier, lesser known works amidst the Vivaldi and the Verdi.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I Musici are credited with introducing 18th-century Italian music to the world through their recordings of this piece, the first of which was made as early as 1955. Numerous recordings later, the group has a certain authority with regard to the work and delivering authentic performances of it. Earlier this year, I heard the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra perform British composer Max Richter’s ‘Recomposed’ version of The Four Seasons, which, despite its status as a chart-topper, I found to be a dull take on the original, with the addition of a synthesizer having a deadening effect on the lyrical and virtuosic lightness of Vivaldi. Hearing such a masterful performance of Vivaldi’s original work from I Musici served as a reminder that just because a piece of music has become somewhat ubiquitous does not mean that it cannot sound fresh, invigorating and incredibly alive.

The opening concerto, Spring, with its jaunty ritornello, is instantly recognizable, and I Musici’s performance is crisp and fresh. In the ensuing passage, reminiscent of birdsong, solo violinist Antonio Anselmi allowed the halting melody to follow its own natural rhythm, as opposed to slavishly observing the constant and continuous Baroque motor, conjuring a natural, idyllic sense. Some excellent work from the violas in the second movement before the dancing Allegro of the third movement brings the season to a close.

The beginning of Summer, in the minor key, was played languidly and liltingly, evoking images of woozy, drifting post-Spring celebrations. The tumultuous storm sequence in the third Presto movement featured some superb playing from Anselmi, and perfectly controlled accents and dynamics from all. The jolly Autumn opening movement featured dainty, light sections from first violin, cello and harpsichord, and the Allegro movement was powerful and triumphant.

The magnificent Winter concerto, my favourite of the four, provided an excellent finish to a spectacular performance. Anselmi handled the frantic, virtuosic melodic solo line perfectly, without shying from the furious pace of the first movement. The beautiful Largo movement evoked images of warm fireplaces, and the final, frenzied Allegro maintained the groups energy to the last.

Taking stylistic liberties, but never to the point of indulgence, I Musici were true to both Baroque conventions and to the spirit of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which sought to capture the ‘natural’ world in music. Sixty years after the release of their first recording, I Musici still play this famous suite of four concertos in a unique way, full of surprises in tone colour, tempo and ornamentation.

After four encores – three Vivaldi, one Donizettti – and a well-deserved standing ovation, the lights came up in the Concert Hall while the audience was still applauding. Heading outside into one of Brisbane’s unusual especially chilly nights, I still had ‘Winter’ ringing in my ears.