Bristol Proms: The Four Seasons Recomposed

Violinist Daniel Hope performs Vivaldi with a twist

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When Paganini performed at Bristol Old Vic back in 1831, he hot-footed it out of the theatre to nearby Bath straight afterwards, so the story goes. Fast-forward to 2013, and visiting violin virtuosos act somewhat differently. After his appearance on the Old Vic stage last night, Daniel Hope headed straight for the theatre bar. The audience was invited to join him to chat – just one of many warm and friendly gestures throughout the evening’s concert.

The centrepiece of Hope’s Bristol Prom, the third in this new summer concert series, was Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed. It’s a reworking of Vivaldi’s famous violin concerto original, written as a way of re-engaging with this over-familiar music, heard now so often in lifts, as phone on-hold music and in TV adverts. Richter plays with Vivaldi’s music in all sorts of ear-opening ways: changing rhythmic accents, looping tiny fragments, placing melodies in strange new landscapes. And for this exhilarating and gutsy performance from Hope and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra – which left one or two people quite literally gasping at the end of movements, not to mention cheering and clapping – there was a twist.

A video animation controlled by the players appeared on screen behind the orchestra. Various musicians were miked up, with the computer software translating the sounds they made into the events we saw. In the slow movement, for instance, Hope’s solo violin line seemed to breathe life into a fire burning in the ruins of a house. This animated world drew on the images described in the sonnets that inspired and were published with Vivaldi’s Concertos – watching it was rather like stepping into a particularly uneventful video game, in which the rippling of cornfields became a major occurrence. But in its hypnotic way, Play Nicely’s visual experiment provided an interesting foil to the music.

Vivaldi also opened the concert, with a heartfelt performance of the Concerto for two violins in A minor, RV 522 from Hope and Patrick Savage. With an acoustic designed for speech rather than music, the sound in the Bristol Old Vic auditorium is very dry. But, although it must be hard work for the musicians, it somehow increased the intimacy and honesty of the performance, drawing us into the inner workings of the sound. An atmospheric arrangement by Christian Badzura (Daniel Hope’s producer at Deutsche Grammophon) of Westhoff’s Imitazione delle Campane followed, a work full of string-crossing brilliance.

And then a wild-card item, Alan Ridout’s Ferdinand the Bull. Chosen because Vivaldi himself might have included a more theatrical item at this point in the evening, explained Hope, this charming piece for narrator and solo violin is in fact full of the same pictorial brilliance as Vivaldi – we hear a nagging mother cow, fighting bulls, an angry bee. Hope performed both parts with aplomb. There were giggles at the start on hearing a musician acting, but soon the laughter was for the gentle good humour of the story of Ferdinand, a serene bull who just wants to sit under a tree and smell the flowers.