“Glories of the Italian Baroque” was the Handel and Haydn Society’s subject on Friday: early 18th-century works placing technical brilliance next to godliness. Amidst much confident music-making at Jordan Hall, the ensemble, directed by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, demonstrated complementary strategies for making virtuosity both poised and dangerous: How do you show off that you are, in fact, showing off?
From the start — Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso (Op. 7, No. 1) — the most obvious method was sheer physical verve, with Nosky herself perhaps most demonstrative, practically fencing with each phrase, thrusting toward a particularly tricky passage, rearing back for another parry. But the 16-player orchestra (mostly standing up) bristled with movement.
Athleticism informed the interpretations, too, especially in concerti by Antonio Vivaldi. In the D-major Cello Concerto (RV 403), soloist Guy Fishman tackled passagework with vigor. Even in the slow movement, his flourishes, rather than being expressively stretched, dueled an unyielding rhythmic grid: a muscular race against time. The Concerto for Four Violins (RV 580) was especially lively, each soloist (Nosky, Susanna Ogata, Christina Day Martinson, and Adriane Post) shadowboxing in her own way. And Nosky drolly redeemed the RV 310 Violin Concerto’s unrelenting cheer by giving successive downbeats increasingly outsize physical gestures. (Extending the athletic theme, there was even an injury time-out — a patron taking a tumble down Jordan Hall’s stairs — complete with encouraging applause as the injured left the field under his own power.)
More intriguing was how both repertoire and performance amplified showiness by disrupting fluency. A Chaconne by Giuseppe Brescianello turned so sharply, so often that instability became the norm; Francesco Durante’s concerto grosso “La Pazzia” (“Madness”) appropriately juxtaposed inconsistency and obsession, the proceedings continually off-balance.
But the players were equally willing to sacrifice their enviably smooth-sanded sound in favor of conveyed flair. That opening Locatelli found the lower strings suddenly dropping in some clacking, percussive attacks, and Nosky bouncing her bow for skittish scintillation in the finale. The Vivaldi four-violin concerto shrunk the 16 players to 10, the better to put some edge to the sound.
The closer was a superbly, subtly dramatic reading of Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso (Op. 7, No. 6), “Il Pianto d’Arianna” (“Arianna’s Tears”). Swooning accents, striking pauses, Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo pricking holes in the ensemble’s steady rhythms, Nosky doubling down on the lamenting affect: It was the emotion, in this case, that troubled the dazzling surface. We can take smoothness for granted. To appreciate it, you need a little resistance.
Handel and Haydn Society
At Jordan Hall, Friday (repeats Sunday)
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.