The English Concert led off its concert Thursday night at the Library of Congress with Antonio Vivaldi’s trio sonata for two violins and continuo, Op. 1, no. 12 — yes, the same set of variations on “La follia” that Ensemble 415 played in the same space six days earlier. Only the English Concert’s performance didn’t even begin with the violins. Instead, the lingering chatter of the crowd ceased at the quiet plucking of William Carter’s Baroque guitar, as Carter constructed a brief, evocative fantasia on the well-known theme in the manner of a jazz soloist leading into the head.
Once the sonata proper began, the English Concert fully deployed its five (!) continuo players, with artistic director Harry Bicket on harpsichord leading Carter plus a theoboro, a cello, and a double bass that doubled as a percussion instrument through the magic of open-hand slaps and knuckle raps. This setup allowed for much more diverse and luxuriant noises than Ensemble 415′s comparatively Spartan two-person continuo, and Bicket and co. made use of it, subtly varying the textures and colors between variations to underscore the drama happening in the violins.
And violinist Rachel Podger made the trio sonata sound like a solo concerto, so magnetic was her playing. Previously I only knew Podger through her awesome recordings, but in a live concert she’s just as much a force of nature as on CD. Where Ensemble 415 played beautifully but with little drama, Podger played roughly when the music demanded it, phrased freely, and commanded about twenty times more interest. You could imagine the Red Priest himself giving a performance that felt like this, even if we’ll never know exactly what kind of performances he gave.
The other works on the program also showcased soloists. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote got the lion’s share of the shine with three works: Claudio Montiverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” four songs by John Dowland, and Georg Friederic Handel’s solo cantata “La Lucrezia.” The first few bars in all three performances found Coote’s voice sounding like plain yogurt, if you’re used to raspberry; I wanted just a little more sweetness or richness. Yet she sang with great attention to drama, varying her dynamics from full-throated roar (a big noise in the Coolidge Auditorium) to a hissing pitched whisper, sometimes within the same phrase, and managing her phrasing to wring just that little extra out of the melody at well-timed points.
She also clenched her fists when the words she sang were angry, made emotion-appropriate facial expressions, twisted and wrenched her body about, and generally made the sadness and anger that dominated these pieces come across as much as she could while spending a not-inconsiderable amount of time singing into her music stand. Combined, her efforts made me hyper-aware of how the words plus the music made its impact; in the Handel, in particular, she gave us a formidable, occasionally bloodcurdling portrait of an extremely vengeance-minded woman. Her voice also blossomed a bit during each piece, making the last few lines of the Handel (in which she offs herself) even more memorable.
William Carter, playing the lute, got to accompany Coote on the Dowland songs, making a sure-footed partner as Coote presented Dowland’s cavalcade of melancholy. He also soloed on “Lacrimae Pavan,” which is about as depressing a piece as you’re going to come by for the lute, and played it with restraint and sureness, thus sealing the bringdown.
The Dowland made an inward respite in a burly program; in between the Dowland and Handel on the second half of the program, cellist Jonathan Manson played Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Minor for cello and strings, RV 401, showing a composer who placed heavy demands on his soloists and a soloist who could meet them with aplomb, even in a slow movement in which Manson spun a thoroughly unpredictable melody. Still, all this post-intermission bad-mood intensity made me long for the extroverted fireworks that ended the program’s first half, another Vivaldi concerto, RV 208 (“Il Grosso Mogul”), this one in D major and with Podger and her violin taking the lead.
Besides playing with exceptional imagination and freshness, Podger’s got that star quality that makes it easy for her to pull off something like the concerto’s slow movement, which consists solely of the violin rhapsodizing over tremolos from the orchestra; Podger made it feel like a journey, punctuated with pauses and sighs, always searching for the next landing place and unable to find it. The finale was so electrifying that the stage lights flickered for a moment (Podger did not miss a beat, bearing the disruption with a smile), and that came before her ridiculously long and entertaining cadenza. My head, analyzing her solo afterward, knows that the cadenza consisted of a bunch of arpeggios describing gradually moving chords, nothing too terribly shocking. But she played it with such freedom, such coruscating tone colors, hunching over for pianissimos and then taking a few steps for modulations, as if physically searching for the upcoming notes. For a while there, I genuinely had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next — a neat trick for 300-year-old music, and an indication of the special things the English Concert made happen on Friday.