In the 1969 crime caper, The Italian Job, Michael Caine exclaims:
'You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off'.
On cue, La Serenissima's performance raised the roof of the Sheldonian on Friday night. Its irresistible programme consisted of Italian composers cherished by rich patrons and loved by emperors – one of whom, Charles VI, took to the harpsichord himself during court performances by favoured composers.
This period marked a significant moment in baroque instrumental music, when the popularity of the violin at last matched that of the voice. Most composers featured were themselves virtuoso violinists, but some were better known for their vocal works. As such, Antonio Caldera's Sinfonia for two oboes, two trumpets timpani, violin, strings and continuo in C was a revelation; Caldera's access to a lavish court orchestra and serried ranks of court trumpeters was well used, but least familiar to the audience. Similarly, Guiseppe Tartini's Concerto for violin, strings and continuo in E, D51 had not been performed since the 18th century.
In addition to showcasing neglected baroque masterpieces – most of which are edited from manuscript or contemporary sources – La Serenissima excelled in the freshness and boldness of their performance. Adrian Chandler's 'avant-garde approach that would have awed Hendrix' according to The Guardian was very much on display.
His lucid introductions, his joyous mastery of baroque's virtuoso repertoire, both as a soloist and conductor had a rock star insouciance, yet his tender acknowledgement of every member of the ensemble and rich praise for soloists, including the wonderful oboists Gail Hennessy and Rachel Chaplin in Tomaso Albinoni's Concerto for two oboes, strings and continuo in F, Op.93, was apt and touching.
Nicol Matteis the Younger's Ballo III and Guiseppe Torelli's Sinfonia for four trumpets, timpani, two oboes, two violins, two cellos, strings and continuo in C, G33 made a joyous sound, while the first movement of Corelli's Sinfonia to S.Beatrice d'Este for stings and continuo in D (Grave) was one of the most moving passages I have ever heard.
If you were not able to witness The Italian Job firsthand, most of the programme is available on CD – highly recommended.