Vivaldi’s quartet of violin concertos The Four Seasons is well trodden ground in both the concert hall and in the studio, not to mention the countless reimaginings by the likes of Max Richter, Nigel Kennedy and Anna Meredith – whose ANNO: Four Seasons the Australian Chamber Orchestra performs next year. This Spring alone, Sydney will see not just this performance of the Red Priest’s most famous concertos by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra but another coming up in November by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
But for all the airtime they get, the pictorial Four Seasons certainly still draw a crowd – SSO Concertmaster Andrew Haveron and a reduced orchestra played to a large and enthusiastic audience in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. The core of SSO strings was joined by the Brandenburg’s Tommie Andersson on theorbo and baroque guitar, and Melbourne-based early keyboard specialist Donald Nicolson on harpsichord, and the strings used baroque bows.
The orchestra dispatched the unmistakable opening of Spring with verdant gusto and neatly terraced dynamics, Haveron bringing plenty of whimsy to the birdsong flourishes, jovially playing off his colleagues. The jazz-band collegiality made for an entertaining performance, and suited the other music on the program: Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, Haveron and co pairing each of Vivaldi’s concertos with Piazzolla’s season equivalent, the players swapping to modern bows, and Haveron trading the clean lines of Vivaldi’s slow movements and the fizzing virtuosity of the Allegros for a grittier tango aesthetic – scratchy, percussive attacks and crying slides.
This arrangement of the Estaciones Porteñas (usually translated as The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, the ‘porteñas’ referring to the inhabitants of the port city more than meteorological phenomena) is one by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, who reworked the composer’s band line-up (violin, piano, electric guitar, bass and bandoneon) for violin and string orchestra at the behest of violinist Gidon Kremer to splice with the Vivaldi – splashes of which have worked their way into Desyatnikov’s adaptation. Haveron is no stranger to this music, performing the Estaciones Porteñas with the SSO in 2015 as part of a collaboration with Sydney Dance Company.
Haveron brought a blistering intensity to the performance. While there were a few moments of slightly uneasy intonation in Vivaldi’s Spring, the energy never wavered across this vibrant cycle of eight seasons, spanning summer rain and hail to autumn harvests and winter snow. The stripped back violin and continuo moments, such as in Summer’s opening movement – Haveron jamming with Umberto Clerici on cello and Nicolson on harpsichord – were joyfully boisterous while the strings gave the summer thunder a menacing edge. The basses drove Piazzolla’s Summer, with some wild shrieks from the violin, while shifting chords from Andersson’s theorbo provided an interlude (Giovanni Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata) at the concert’s halfway point.
Cellist Catherine Hewgill’s yearning solo in Piazzolla’s Autumn was a highlight, as was Nicolson’s spidering harpsichord in the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Autumn (during which the peasants sleep off the bacchanal of the Allegro before the finale’s hunt).
Haveron’s bright, penetrating tone took on a darker hue in Piazzolla’s more sombre, reflective Autumn, while the chord progression in Winter‘s nostalgic final section recalled Pachelbel’s famous canon even more strikingly in this string arrangement than it does in the original band format. The Largo of Vivaldi’s Winter was cosy after the shivering, skittering solos of the first movement, the pizzicati crackling like embers, before Haveron brought the cycle to a thrilling close with a fierce blizzard of notes in the finale.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs The Four Seasons at the Sydney Opera House until October 12