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Review: The Four Seasons

Posted on 17 Feb 2015 by Neall Kriete


It’s typical of the ACO’s eclectic penchant, or that of its peripatetic director, that a programme entitled The Four Seasons should commence, not with Vivaldi, but Giovanni Gabrieli, (as the name implies) an early (sixteenth to early seventeenth-century) Italian composer of, principally, both sacred and secular vocal music, but also instrumental pieces, for keyboard, strings and wind ensemble. If you want to think about it by way of crass twentieth-century consumerism, long before anyone thought about quadrophonic, let alone surround sound systems, he was toying with spatial possibilities, by placing different voices in different parts of an auditorium. He was, in fact, a true and undoubted master of cori spezzati, as it’s known. His twenty-first sonata isn’t especially twenty-first century, but it’s lofty, high renaissance style epitomises the Venetian school and is all class. Temporally, it steps on the ABO’s toes a little, as it teeters right on the edge of renaissance succumbing to baroque, but all fare’s fair game in love of music, right?

As Darryl Kerrigan would say (albeit about his wife’s chicken), ‘it’s what you do with it!’ and, as usual, Tognetti and company keep things lively & interesting with interpolation of oud and hand percussion (riq & bendir), courtesy the fabulous Tawadros brothers, Joseph & James. Happily, we know them better than Gabrieli who, despite being one of the most influential musicians of his day (he was a celebrated organist, too), hardly gets a look-in, these days; he hasn’t got a hope, especially given the likes of Kanye are prone to stealing others’ Grammy limelight. Oud brings a wealth of colour and character to otherwise rarefied, baroque string arrangements: it effectively brings the piece back down to earth. Like Gabrieli, Vivaldi was a Venetian, at a time when Venice luxuriated in a surfeit of Islamic culture, by dint of trade with Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Both composers afforded much room for virtuosi (Vivaldi was the Tognetti of his day) in their works, so the placement of the likes of Tognetti and Tawadros (times two) is an entirely consistent, respectful homage.

But the current tour doesn’t rely only on bygones. Joe T is a prolific composer in the here-and-now (he’s barely in his thirties, but has released eleven albums and I’ve lost count of his ARIAs) that bears, in a way, quite a striking resemblance to the Vivaldis of this world, inasmuch as he ingeniously deploys bite-size melodic motifs to construct, on the one hand, tempestuous pieces and, on the other, aching expressions that move heart and soul in a very different direction; both equally poetical.

Tawadros compositions sit proudly between the baroque master’s; holding their head up in this, or any, company. It strikes me that, quite apart from the Arabic influences on Venetian music of the era RT’s keen to shine a light upon, there’s something both Vivaldi & Tawadros share in common with writers of popular music: they’ve a knack for finding ‘hooks’, fragments that embed themselves in the auditory cortex, such that can one find oneself humming the tune, or tapping out the beat, when one least expects it. Now that’s an art; a gift. And not all composers are blessed by it.

Among the Tawadros canon (not an inappropriate word, as much of his music has a sacred, or at least reverential, quality), it’s difficult to select favourites. Give or Take, from his album The Hour of Separation, is one of at least a couple of pieces (Kindred Spirits, from his latest, New York-recorded studio release, Permission to Evaporate, also played, is another) conceived as duets for oud and bass, with the likes of top-flight jazz musos in mind; in this case, John Patitucci, with whom Tawadros has recorded (along with Christian McBride). It’s an instructive composition, inasmuch as it unequivocally demonstrates the potency of harmonic compatibility of the two instruments. Maxime Bibeau, principal bassist with the orchestra, derives almost unbelievable sounds from his sixteenth-century da Salo and the arrangement for chamber orchestra lends a whole other perspective to the rather dark veil that hangs over the acoustic intimacy of the original recording. Needless to say, it’s an exemplary showcase for Joseph’s virtuosity, too. Like so many of his compositions, it bristles, brims and veritably bursts with vitality, as does, by way of another arbitrary example, Constantinople (every concert benefice from a big finish), which proves a dynamic exposition of just how tightly the Tawadros brothers can bind to each other and an orchestra, each eliciting silent bravo!s as I listened, intently, on the edge of my seat. It culminates in an explosively climactic, nigh-on orgasmic denouement. A thrill a minute and it lasts for around seven.

Failures? Only of sound reproduction. Mikes are involved and, though it was clear Tawadros was playing his fretless instrument furiously (I half-expected to see smoke rising, or steam coming out his ears) during, as I recall, the summer concerto, I couldn’t really hear him. Disappointing. I was clamouring to hear JT’s responsive improvisations in much more detail. There were other times, too, when, due, presumably, to the scale and acoustics of the venue, if not live mixing, many of its tonal textures disappeared into the ether. That’s about it for complaints, though. And, let’s face it, they’re technical, not musical.

The ACO, in this compact format (six violins; one viola; two cellos; bass; harpsichord; chamber organ; theorbo; guitar) hardly needed the twin-turbocharging of the Tawadroses. When the band struck out, ostensibly, on its own (though it was astonishing how well JamesT’s intricate ‘riksure’ rhythms sat with AV’s dramas for strings), it, too, was on fire. There were points at which strings were being plucked with such vigour, it made me anxious for the welfare of their priceless, ancient instruments. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing. It certainly sounds like it, with Tognetti in such form he probably should’ve been wearing a cape. His performance was musically and even physically athletic: often on the front foot and occasionally airborne. Given the degree of difficulty of the pieces and orchestrations, only accentuated by the frenetic tempos set by Vivaldi and Tawadros, the communal precision was extraordinary; the orchestra was entirely as one. I’ve never heard AV’s 4S played like this: the ACO has completely revivified Vivaldi’s most famous works and reminded us spring can have spring; summer can be hot and stormy; autumn can have as many sonic hues as tumbling leaves; winter can really make you shiver. This outfit puts the daring, derring-do and danger back into Venetian baroque. And loving it.

Imagine a banquet of northern Italian and Mediterranean food, translate it to music and feast your ears on the delicious fusion. What I’ve discussed here is but a tasting plate. There’s much more in store.

This was probably one of the best classical crossover concerts I’ve seen in years. No. That’s probably not true. Make that decades.

Lloyd Bradford Syke, 11 February 2015

The Four Seasons

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has undergone many reincarnations since it was first played by the talented orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th-century Venice. Now, Richard Tognetti and Joseph Tawadros bring their own blend of musical alchemy to this program, reminding us that Venice is barely a day’s sail from Cairo.
Almost 300 years after Vivaldi penned the Four Seasons, Joseph Tawadros brings the sounds of the near east to Australia with a selection of original works.