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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione op. 8 - L'Estro Armonico, op. 3

Accademia Bizantina
Dir: Ottavio Dantone

rec: Sept 1999 (op. 8) & March 2001 (op. 3), Ravenna, Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale
Arts - 47750-2 (4 CDs) (R) ( 2004) (3.32'17")
[Individual discs: (op. 3) 47646-2 & 47647-2; (op. 8) 47564-2 & 47565-2]

Concerto in D, op. 3,1 (RV 549)bcde; Concerto in g minor, op. 3,2 (RV 578)bcf; Concerto in G, op. 3,3 (RV 310)b; Concerto in e minor, op. 3,4 (RV 550)bcde; Concerto in A, op. 3,5 (RV 519)bc; Concerto in a minor, op. 3,6 (RV 356)b; Concerto in F, op. 3,7 (RV 567)bcdef; Concerto in a minor, op. 3,8 (RV 522)bc; Concerto in D, op. 3,9 (RV 230)b; Concerto in b, op. 3,10 (RV 580)bcdef; Concerto in d minor, op. 3,11 (RV 565)bcf; Concerto in E, op. 3,12 (RV 265)b
Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269)b; Concerto in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315)b; Concerto in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293)b; Concerto in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297)b; Concerto in E flat, op. 8,5 'La Tempesta di Mare' (RV 253)b; Concerto in C, op. 8,6 'Il Piacere' (RV 180)b; Concerto in d minor, op. 8,7 (RV 242)b; Concerto in g minor, op. 8,8 (RV 332)b; Concerto in d minor, op. 8,9 (RV 454)a; Concerto in Bes, op. 8,10 'La Caccia' (RV 362); Concerto in D, op. 8,11 (RV 210)b; Concerto in C, op. 8,12 (RV 449)a

Source: L'Estro Armonico, op. 3, 1711; Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione, op. 8, 1725

(soloists) Paolo Grazzi, oboea; Stefano Montanarib, Fiorenza De Donatisc; Paolo Zinzanid, Laura Mirrie, violin; Mauro Valli, cellof

There is hardly any collection of music which has had so much influence on the history of music as Vivaldi's twelve concertos, which were published in 1711 under the title L'Estro Armonico. It was the composer's opus 3, which was preceded by two sets of sonatas: opus 1 for two violins and opus 2 for solo violin, both with basso continuo. The fact that the opus 3 was published in Amsterdam guaranteed a wide circulation, as the city was the centre of music publication in Europe. It seems, though, that copies of these concertos were circulating in manuscript throughout Europe years before their publication. It is difficult in fact to say when these concertos were actually composed.

The main reason these concertos attracted so much attention was that they marked the shift from the concerto grosso principle towards the solo concerto. The twelve concertos are divided into four groups of three, each consisting of one concerto for solo violin, one for two violins and one for four violins (sometimes with an additional obbligato part given to the cello). The concertos for four violins are still rooted in the concerto grosso practice, but the concertos for one and two violins reflect the new concerto style which was to be copied everywhere in Europe, and which influenced the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach. The handling of the ritornello also made a great impression, as Johann Joachim Quantz stated: "Vivaldi's splendid ritornelli served as good models for me in later days".

In 1725, again in Amsterdam, Vivaldi's opus 8 was published, under the title Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Invenzione. This collection also consisted of twelve concertos, all written for one solo instrument: ten for violin, two for either violin or oboe. This set has become Vivaldi's most famous opus because of the first four concertos, Le Quattro Stagioni ('The Four Seasons'). These are specimens of the genre of programmatic music. The meaning of these concertos is explained by four sonnets, probably written by Vivaldi himself and describing the characteristics of the four seasons. The set contains three concertos with descriptive titles: No 5 La Tempesta di Mare (the storm at sea), No 6 Il Piacere (the enjoyment) and No 10 La Caccia (the hunt). But these can't be considered examples of programmatic music - they rather give a general impression of the subject matter of the title.

These concertos, and in particular the first four, belong to the most popular works by Vivaldi, both in our time and in his lifetime. The 18th-century British historian Sir John Hawkins wrote: "Certain it is that the Op. 8 is the most applauded of Vivaldi's works". But they didn't meet with general approval. Some didn't consider Vivaldi's compositions serious enough, in particular in comparison with the concertos by Corelli. Another British historian, Charles Burney, wasn't very complimentary, when he wrote that the Venetians - among them Vivaldi and Albinoni - could be classified as "the light and irregular troops". Some of Vivaldi's colleagues also criticised the prevalence of extreme virtuosity and the imitation of birds. Francesco Geminiani wrote that "such tricks rather belong to the professors of legerdemain and posture-masters than to the art of music". Although these comments were not specifically directed at Vivaldi, it doesn't take too much imagination to work out that Geminiani probably had him in mind.

When Vivaldi was rediscovered and became one of the favourite composers of musicians and ensembles playing on period instruments a number of recordings were released by ensembles from north of the Alps. Since the early 1990s ensembles from Italy have taken up the challenge to give their view on Vivaldi. In many cases their performances and recordings were ear-openers, providing the music world with completely different, generally more bold and daring interpretations. But although I admire many of these recordings, I can't always escape the impression that they are so eager to do things differently that they look for effects which are sometimes outright ugly and which cannot stand up to repeated listening.

This recording is different. Yes, these are Italian interpretations, which have a lot of warmth and passion. And yes, there is plenty of virtuosity here, from all participants, the soloists as well as the orchestra. But nowhere does one hear ugly sounds, scratchy violin playing, exaggerated effects - these performances are just a delight to listen to. There is a lot of lyricism in the slow movements, for example in the second movement of the Concerto in D, op. 3,1 (RV 549). The amount of ornamentation is just right, and very stylish to boot. Just listen to the larghetto from the Concerto in g minor, op. 3,2 (RV 578) or the largo from the Concerto in d minor, op. 8,7 (RV 242). The dialogue between the solo instruments has been realised very well (allegro from Concerto in a minor, op. 3,8 (RV 522)).

The descriptive and programmatic concertos are performed with great imagination. Just to give some examples: the handling of dynamics in the first movement of the first concerto of the Four Seasons is excellent. The singing of the birds as well as thunder and lightning in 'Spring' is vividly portrayed. In the first allegro of the third Concerto, 'Autumn', the singing and dancing of the farmers is brilliantly illustrated by the ornamentation, and the slowing down of the tempo depicts the slowing of the farmers' steps under the influence of the 'liquor of Bacchus'.

There are a couple of things I didn't like, for instance the entrance of the orchestra at the end of the 'larghetto e spiritoso' from the Concerto in a minor, op. 3,8 (RV 522), which abruptly disrupts the etherical atmosphere and is in sharp contrast with the sensitive entrance of the orchestra at the start. The same happens in the 'largo e spiccato' of the Concerto in d minor, op. 3,11 (RV 565) of the same set, which is a siciliano - the orchestral interventions are too loud and abrasive.

Two other things: it is a shame the two concertos for either violin or oboe from Opus 8 are not recorded here in both versions - there is plenty of space on the disc. It should also be noted that, whereas many recordings feature these concertos performed with one instrument per part, the Accademia Bizantina uses six (Opus 3) or seven (Opus 8) violins.

All four discs contain a booklet with programme notes giving information about the concertos which draw the listener's attention to the specific features of every concerto.

To sum up: this is a very fine set, which I wholeheartedly recommend to those listeners who are looking for warm and passionate performances able to stand up to repeated listening.

Johan van Veen ( 2005)

Relevant links:

Accademia Bizantina

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