CAMBRIDGE — The liner note to the new Deutsche Grammophon CD from Israeli-born mandolinist Avi Avital and the Venice Baroque Orchestra is titled “Rocking Vivaldi,” and that’s a fair description of the Boston Early Music Festival concert they gave Friday at First Church in Cambridge. Vivaldi wasn’t the only composer on the bill, but he was the headliner. Which was no surprise, since the “Red Priest” was born in Venice and spent most of his career there.
What was surprising was how effective “Summer,” from “The Four Seasons,” sounded on Avital’s mandolin. It is, after all, a violin concerto, and you might wonder how the mandolin, which is plucked, could replicate the cantabile capability of a bowed instrument. But Avital and the Venice Baroque Orchestra put the music back into “early music.” They play with the freedom of rock or jazz musicians, and a sensibility that’s distinctively urban. Their “Summer” was no month in the country — more like summer in the city. It didn’t hurt that the orchestra members are actual Venetians. The turtle doves of “Summer” sounded more like pigeons. The restless heat of the Adagio was perhaps even better expressed by the mandolin, especially with the orchestra’s very delicate accompaniment. It was all very close and sultry, making the thunder and lightning of the Presto uncomfortably humid as well as scary.
Avital’s mandolin gave Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute in D a shimmer of Venetian water you don’t hear in the original; the Largo was quick and bittersweet. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Mandolins in G here became a concerto for mandolin and sopranino recorder, with Avital and fleet-fingered Anna Fusek (who also played violin) as the dueling soloists. In his Concerto for Mandolin in C, Vivaldi wittily had the strings play pizzicato throughout, turning the ensemble into a mandolin orchestra. Avital made the Largo swing and sway. There was also a visitor from Naples, Paisiello’s Concerto for Mandolin in E-flat.
Works by Albinoni, Marcello, and Geminiani afforded the orchestra a chance to shine on its own. Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, an arrangement of Corelli’s “La Follia” sonata, was stately but never sleepy, with an energetic interplay between Gianpiero Zanocco’s violin and Daniele Bovo’s violoncello.
Avital showed off his own fleet fingers on his solo encore, the Bulgarian folk dance “Bucimis.” The evening closed sweetly with the Largo from Vivaldi’s Flautino Concerto in C, Avital taking the solo part on the mandolin and everyone making it sound as if Venice were in the next room.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.