Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ must be on everyone’s list of classical favourites, so the Locrian Ensemble, which specialises in baroque music, have placed this much-loved piece at the centre of the programme they are currently touring. The ensemble, dressed in period costume, offered the audience at Blackpool Grand a menu of early classical hits, including Bach’s Air on a G string, Handel’s music for the arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon – and, inevitably perhaps, Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’.

The choices are all crowd-pleasers of course, and the familiar tunes were performed with respect and élan by this accomplished and experienced group.

Unlike the case with most classical concerts, some thought has been given here to the idea of the performance as a spectacle. The group are lit by candlelight – not real candles of course, in these health and safety conscious times – and perform against a trompe l’oeil backdrop of an eighteenth-century stage set, with columns, Grecian urns and genteel rural scenes.   Their costumes are very striking, the men in richly brocaded topcoats, with knee breeches and stockings, and shiny buckled shoes. The women can’t go for quite such a flamboyant look when playing their instruments, but there were still many yards of exotic looking fabric on display, as well as some startling wigs.

The Locrian Ensemble is a small unit, seven strong in the line-up at Blackpool: four violins, double bass, cello and theorbo. Director and cellist Justin Pearson took the role of MC for the night, introducing each piece, and entertaining an enthusiastic audience with some comic patter. It was all refreshingly unstuffy: I certainly didn’t expect to hear anecdotes about flatulence, sauerkraut and red knickers as part of this concert of baroque masterworks. This is not to diminish the quality of the playing: the Locrian are seriously good at what they do, as their best-selling recordings of, for example, the music for Wolf Hall can testify. Tonight, as well as the familiar numbers, they also included a genuine surprise: two short pieces written by the sixteen-year-old Mozart, discovered by Pearson in Bologna, and played here with spirit and sensitivity by the group.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and showcased the virtuosity of lead violinist Rita Manning. In another unusual move, Pearson introduced each movement by reading a short summary of the poems which Vivaldi used as inspiration for the music. This was certainly useful for those in the audience who might have been unaware of the programmatic nature of the piece, and allowed him to call the audience’s attention to the contributions made by individual members to the overall soundworld. A successful rendition of Vivaldi’s best-known work is of course dependent on the ability of the solo violinist, and Rita Manning was equal to the task. After a perhaps rather tentative start, she displayed great attack, particularly in the allegro sections of winter, and drove the group on to the dramatic conclusion with commendable dynamism. Credit too should be given to Lynda Sayce, whose theorbo was more prominent than usual in this keyboard-less ensemble.

It was fitting that in this great Victorian theatre, the Locrian chose to encore with a tune that must have been heard many a time in the early years of its existence – the old Marie Lloyd song ‘My Old Man’, here presented in a lively string arrangement that had quite a few in the audience singing along. It was a suitably jolly conclusion to an evening of great music making where some of the great works of the baroque were presented with vigour, humour and wit.

Reviewer: Rob Spence

Reviewed: 19th January 2018

North West End Rating: ★★★★

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