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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): The Four Seasons

[I] "The Four Seasons"
Shunske Sato, violina
Concerto Köln
rec: June 25 - 26, 2016, Kempen
Berlin Classics - 0300829BC (© 2016) (51'04")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Mayumi Hirasaki, Markus Hoffmann, Frauke Pöhl, Jörg Buschhaus, Antje Engel, Hedwig van der Linde, Chiharu Abe, violin; Antje Sabinski, Claudia Steeb, viola; Alexander Scherf, cello; Jean-Michel Forest, double bass; Michael Dücker, lute; Gianluca Capuano, harpsichord

[II] Antonio VIVALDI: "The Four Seasons" - Frantisek JIRÁNEK: "Violin Concerto in D minor"
Gunar Letzbor, violin
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor
rec: April 21 - 24, 2016, St Florian (A), Sommerrefektorium St. Florian
Challenge Classics - CC72700 (© 2016) (59'36")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Friedrich Kircher, Barbara Konrad, violin; Markus Miesenberger, viola; Claire Pottinger-Schmidt, cello; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Hubert Hoffmann, theorbo; Eric Traxler, harpsichord, organ

Frantisek JIRÁNEK (1698-1778): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minor (KapM Jiranek 7) [II]; Antonio VIVALDI: Concerto for strings and bc in g minor (RV 156) [I]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autumno' (RV 293)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297)a; Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro for strings and bc in b minor (RV 169) [I]

Score Jiranek
Scores Vivaldi

Many of Vivaldi's concertos bear titles. Often they are described as specimens of 'programme music', but in fact most of them fall into the category of 'descriptive music'. Le Quattro Stagioni (the Four Seasons) are without any doubt the most famous of all Vivaldi's concertos. They were already famous in Vivaldi's own time, immediately after being printed in 1725 as part of the twelve concertos Op. 8. In this case there can be no doubt about their programmatic character, because Vivaldi added four sonnets (*) describing the features of the various seasons. In order to make clear his intentions he added precise indications about the meaning of various effects in several of the concertos' parts.

It is notable that neither the sonnets nor these indications were part of these concertos at the onset. The Op. 8 was dedicated to the Bohemian count Morzin, who had honoured Vivaldi with the title maestro di musica in Italia. The composer had sent the Four Seasons to the count some time before 1725 or probably performed them in his presence. In his preface he writes: "I beg Your Highness not to be astonished at finding among these few feeble concertos The Four Seasons, which met with Your Highness's indulgent approval so many years ago; believe me, I found them worthy of being printed - although in every respect they are the same pieces - because on this occasion I have added not only the sonnets but also precise explanations on all the things that are depicted here." It seems that he didn't want to create any misunderstandings about the meaning of these concertos now that they could be played by others than himself.

From this angle one may wonder whether interpreters are right to bring in their very personal approach to these concertos. Could it be that playing them as they are written down is the most appropriate way to perform them, obviously complying with the interpretational conventions of the time, for instance in regard to ornamentation? That is the way they were played in the early days of historical performance practice. Whereas the interpreters of those days may have been to restrained and not have taken into account the fundamentally theatrical nature of Italian music, their peers of our time may go too far in adding all sorts of effects which can easily become exaggerated. Over the years I have heard several of such performances. They may make quite some impression at first, but it is questionable whether they are up to repeated listening. But then, I would not like to hear these concertos regularly anyway...

The two recent recordings reviewed here represent two very different accounts by brilliant violinists. Gunar Letzbor is a major force in the early music scene, mostly performing and recording with his own ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria. Shuske Sato is more versatile in that he not only plays the baroque violin, but also its modern counterpart, and his repertoire includes 20th-century music. He plays in several ensembles and has recently been appointed musical director of the Netherlands Bach Society.

Both offer here their personal views on these four concertos by Vivaldi. Overall Sato has the swifter tempi. The most striking difference between the two recordings in this regard is the closing movement from the last concerto. Sato takes 3'23", whereas Letzbor needs 4'40". As there are so many differences between the recordings which are available, it doesn't make that much sense to compare them. They are complementary rather than competitive. That also goes for the present two performances. While listening to these recordings I sometimes preferred Sato, whereas elsewhere I liked Letzbor better. I list here some of my observations and impressions, without expressing a clear preference for either of these interpretations.

Sato takes quite some liberties, for instance in regard to intonation. A notable example is the opening movement of L'autunno (Autumn). The sonnet says: "The peasant celebrates with song and dance the harvest safely gathered in. The cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber". Letzbor focuses on the happiness of the peasants, with marked rhythms and a lively tempo. Sato, on the other hand, deliberately plays out of tune and adds tremoli, suggesting that the peasants get drunk.

The opening movement from La primavera (Spring) comes off well in both recordings, but the barking of the dogs is underexposed in either of them. Letzbor makes rather heavy weather of the tutti episodes in the closing movement. In the opening movement from L'estate the contrasts within the first movement are nicely worked out by both soloists. They create a good amount of tension in the slow movement, which is dominated by "fear of lightning's flash and thunder's roar". Sato adds quite some effects in the opening movement from L'inverno (Winter), including again playing out of tune; he also takes liberties in tempo and rhythm. Letzbor plays quite loudly here and sometimes produces ugly sounds - deliberately, of course. The difference between the two performers in this concerto's slow movement is striking: Letzbor plays it quietly and pretty softly, whereas Sato adds many ornamentation, on the verge of recomposing the piece.

Sato and Concerto Köln add two ripieno concertos, scored for strings and bc, without solo parts. Interestingly the ensemble is split into two 'choirs' in the Concerto in g minor, which creates quite a nice effect. The Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in b minor is very well played; the dense counterpoint receives just enough transparency.

Letzbor presents a violin concerto by Frantisek Jiránek, who is hardly known; he does not appear in New Grove. He was born in northern Bohemia; his parents were servants of Count Morzin, for whom Vivaldi composed his Four Seasons. Frantisek entered his service as a musician, and was sent to Venice in 1724, where Vivaldi may have been his teacher. It cannot surprise that in some cases there is doubt about the authorship of his concertos, which very much sound like those from Vivaldi's pen. That certainly goes for the Concerto in d minor, which Letzbor plays here. It is a very nice work, following the ritornello principe which Vivaldi developed. Two brilliant fast movements embrace an expressive grave. This piece probably appears here for the first time on disc. Recently other pieces from Jiránek's pen have been performed, and that seems well deserved.

I have enjoyed both discs, although I did not always like the effects in Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The playing of both soloists and the ensembles is outstanding. There is really no dull moment here. From the angle of repertoire (and playing time) the Challenge Classic disc may be considered the winner of this little contest, which in fact is none.

(*) The sonnets are included in the Channel Classics booklet, but omitted by Berlin Classics.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Shunske Sato
Ars Antiqua Austria
Concerto Köln

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