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Antonio Vivaldi: "Vivaldi in Arcadia - Concertos and Arias"

Mhairi Lawson, sopranoa La Serenissima
Dir: Adrian Chandler

rec: Sep 8 - 10, 2003, Salehurst (East Sussex, UK), Church of St Mary the Virgin
AVIE - AV0031 (79'30")

Concerto for 2 violins, strings and basso continuo in A (RV 520); Concerto for 2 violins, 2 cellos, strings and basso continuo in D (RV 564); Concerto for 2 violins, 2 cellos, strings and basso continuo in G (RV 575); Concerto for 3 violins, strings and basso continuo in F (RV 551); Concerto for 3 violins, cello and basso continuo in D ‘La Pastorella’ (RV 95); Concerto for 4 violins, viola and basso continuo in B flat (RV 553); Dorilla in Tempe, opera (RV 709)a: Mi lusinga il dolce affetto, aria of Elmiro (Act I,1) (Johann Adolf Hasse, 1699 – 1783), Bel piacer saria d’un core, aria of Nomio (Act II,7), Rete lacci, aria of Filindo (Act I,9) (Geminiano Giacomelli, 1692 – 1740)

Adrian Chandler, Matthew Truscott, Sarah Sexton, Persephone Gibbs, Katarina Bengtson, violins; Sarah Moffat, violin, viola; Peter Collyer, Samantha Hutchins, viola; Gareth Deats, Sarah McMahon, cello; Peter McCarthy, double bass; Eligio Quintero, theorbo; Robert Howarth, harpsichord

Antonio Vivaldi was one of the first composers to gain from the revival of interest in baroque music in the 1960s. It was the Italian ensemble I Musici which spent time and energy interpreting and recording his instrumental works. When the historical performance practice won ground in the 1970s and 1980s it was Vivaldi again who benefited from it. Gradually ensembles from outside Italy took the lead in playing and recording Vivaldi's concertos. Then the 1990s saw the emergence of Italian ensembles playing period instruments and interpreting Italian music on the basis of the principles of the historical performance practice. One could even get the impression that the interpretation of Vivaldi's music had become the exclusive right of Italian ensembles like Il Giardino Armonico, Europa Galante, Concerto Italiano and others. But ensembles from other countries have continued to play Vivaldi, as the present recording by the British ensemble La Serenissima proves.
And Vivaldi's music continues to be very popular among interpreters and audiences alike. Right now even, a recording of Vivaldi's complete works is in progress. But although the number of recordings with Vivaldi's music is considerable it is not impossible to find some pieces which haven't been played and recorded over and over again.

This disc contains some concertos which belong to the lesser known of the 'red priest'. They are brought together under the title 'Vivaldi in Arcadia'. In his liner notes Adrian Chandler explains the importance of pastoral motifs in the music of the baroque. He refers to the rediscovery of the classical poets Theocritus and Virgil, "whose poetry created a strong interest in Arcadia, a mountainous and wooded part of the Peloponnese peopled by gods, spirits, nymphs and pastoral folk." Vivaldi's sonnets for The Four Seasons contain pastoral imagery which is rooted in the works of poets like Guarini (Il Pastor Fido) and Tasso (Aminta).
One of the pieces which clearly reflects the composer's interest in pastoral motifs is the Concerto in D (RV 95) which is nicknamed La Pastorella. Originally it was conceived for recorder, oboe, violin, bassoon and bc. Adrian Chandler refers to the fact that recorder and oboe were traditionally associated with pastoral subjects. Therefore it is rather strange that in this recording Vivaldi's alternative scoring for three violins, cello and bc has been chosen. To some extent this undermines the link to the subject of 'Arcadia'.

And this is exactly one of the minuses of this recording. The connection of most concertos on this recording with 'Arcadia' is rather thin. Adrian Chandler refers to the fact that the violin was "symbolically interchangeable with the lyre" - an instrument connected to Apollo. But then he goes on by saying that "Apollo is not primarily a figure of Arcadia". Therefore the connection of concertos for one or more violins with 'Arcadia' seems rather far-fetched. As a result the choice of music for a recording with this subject is a little arbitrary.
The inclusion of three arias from Vivaldi's opera Dorilla in Tempe – first performed in 1726 - is more appropriate, though. The story of the opera can be easily linked to the subject. But only one of the three arias is by Vivaldi. When Dorilla in Tempe was performed again in 1734 Vivaldi replaced several arias of his own by arias written by more ‘modern’ composers, like Hasse and Giacomelli, two of which are performed here.

I am just as sceptical about the performance as I am about the way the concept has been realised. Let me start by saying that I liked the contributions of Mhairi Lawson. She does very well realising the different character of the three arias (by three different characters in the opera). She uses a little too much vibrato for my taste, but I enjoyed her ornamentation.
It is the string playing which causes me trouble. The general approach is rather straightforward, with too little variety within movements and too little contrast between phrases. Two of the concertos on this disc, RV 551 and 564, have been recorded by Il Giardino Armonico (Teldec). The difference is striking: the Italians produce a broader range of colours and apply a larger dynamic contrast between phrases, within phrases, and even on single notes by using the 'messa di voce'. It is perhaps appropriate to say that La Serenissima underlines the virtuoso character and the rhythmic drive of these concertos, whereas Il Giardino Armonico with its strong 'gestural' performance displays the theatrical character of Vivaldi's music.

The playing in itself is quite brilliant, and the choice of tempi generally satisfying. But I find it rather wearisome, which is the result of too little differentiation in dynamics - there is too much forte and too little piano - and of the too uniform treatment of the notes.

I would recommend this recording because of the three vocal items, but otherwise only to those who like this approach to Vivaldi’s music. The interpretation of La Serenissima is a very good specimen of the British art of performing Vivaldi. I personally prefer hearing Vivaldi the Italian way.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Tomaso Albinoni
Johann Georg Pisendel
Antonio Vivaldi

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