It’s a truism that the standards of technical proficiency in classical music have grown exponentially over the centuries, but the virtuoso players of the past left some daunting reminders of their own prowess in the form of individual works often composed as vehicles for their own solo performances. Paganini’s Caprices are the most obvious instance of this, but there are plenty more examples in the music of less heralded figures such as Pietro Locatelli and Francesco Geminiani.
Dazzling works by both of these violinist-composers turned up on Friday night’s Handel and Haydn Society program in Jordan Hall.
Having recently offered Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” H&H chose to travel these less-trafficked corridors of the Italian Baroque in its “Vivaldi Virtuosi” program. Also present was music by Francesco Durante, Charles Avison, and of course, Vivaldi. Guest conductor Ian Watson presided over the evening from the harpsichord, projecting a solid and collegial if somewhat understated musical presence.
The evening proved an excellent showcase for a small complement of H&H strings, and in particular for the concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who was ratcheting up the collective energy level by the second movement of the opening work, Avison’s Concerto Grosso No. 6. Here, as in a Vivaldi Sonata (Op. 2, No. 2) later in the program, Nosky’s playing was distinguished not only by her dance-like physical exuberance, but also by a sense of style and fantasy that helped lift the virtuosic music at hand above any sense of mere passagework.
In the Vivaldi Sonata, as in the whirlwind closing account of Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, “La Follia,” Nosslin found a sympathetic and capable partner in principal cellist Guy Fishman, who, together with cellist Sarah Freiberg, also gave a vigorous and incisive performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor.
A vivid reading of Vivaldi’s B-minor Concerto for Four Violins added Christina Day Martinson, Abigail Karr, and Susanna Ogata to the roster of soloists. And the opening of Locatelli’s Introduttione (Op. 4, No. 5), full of downward rushing lines, was rendered with an effective blend of rhythmic precision and earthly vitality.
Missing at times throughout the night was a more keenly nuanced sense of color and shading as deployed by the full ensemble. The H&H strings also don’t consistently move, breathe, and phrase as a single organic entity, but I was heartened by the few moments when the leadership seemed to expand, at least briefly, beyond the principal players.