musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "The Complete Viola d'amore Concertos"

Rachel Barton Pine, viola d'amore; Hopkinson Smith, lutea
Ars Antigua

rec: Nov 15 - 16, 2011; July 1, 2 & 8; August 27, 2014, Chicago, Ill., Music Institute (Nichols Hall)
Cedille Records - CDR 90000 159 (© 2015) (79'11")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for viola d'amore, lute, strings and bc in d minor (RV 540)a; Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in D (RV 392); Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in d minor (RV 393); Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in d minor (RV 394); Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in d minor (RV 395); Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in A (RV 396); Concerto for viola d'amore, strings and bc in a minor (RV 397); Concerto for viola d'amore, 2 horns, 2 oboes, bassoon and bc in F (RV 97)

The viola d'amore is one of the more curious and less common instruments in Western music. Its popularity is largely confined to the 17th and 18th centuries. It became obsolete in the 19th century because its rather sweet sound couldn't cope with the large forces of the symphony orchestra and the large concert halls. In the 20th century it enjoyed a revival, largely in the wake of the interest in early music. Some composers wrote music for it but it has never received the status of a common instrument.

In that respect our time is not very different from the baroque period. The viola d'amore became in vogue at the end of the 17th century, especially in South Germany and Austria, and disappeared at the end of the 18th. Within that relatively short span of time it had a strong appeal, though. A considerable number of composers explored its expressive qualities for music of various kinds. Among them are solo concertos, but in particular chamber music. It was also used in vocal music, for instance by Johann Sebastian Bach in his St John Passion and by Vivaldi in his oratorio Juditha triumphans. The latter is also responsible for eight concertos in which the viola d'amore has the lead.

The instrument wasn't called viola d'amore without a reason. It was especially the sweetness of its sound which appealed to music lovers and composers. That aspect may raise the question why Vivaldi felt attracted to it as his music is mostly rather extroverted and dramatic and his solo parts often virtuosic. "On this day, a remarkable opportunity presented itself: one of the foremost violinists of Venice, a certain Dr Antonio Vivaldi - a famous composer who in addition to the violin also plays a kind of viola with twelve strings, known as the viola d'amore - happened to be passing through here, and was intending to play the latter instrument at Vespers in the above-mentioned church, which was so packed that people were practically coming to blows in their efforts to gain entrance and the crowd spilled out halfway across the street. He played (...) in such an exquisite manner that I have never heard its like since". Thus a contemporary about a performance in 1717. It is documented that about ten years before he had provided viola d'amore strings at the Ospedale della Pietà. This indicates that learning to play the viola d'amore was part of the musical education at this institution. Paul V. Miller, in his liner-notes to the present recording, states that Vivaldi may have come into contact with the instrument as early as 1689. In that year he met a certain Nicolo Urio at San Marco who was known to play the viola d'amore.

He also mentions that it is not always easy to decide what instrument historical documents refer to. Sometimes instruments without sympathetic strings are called viola d'amore whereas in other cases instruments with resonating strings were in fact treble viols. The liner-notes to Catherine Mackintosh's recording of Vivaldi's viola d'amore concertos (Hyperion, 1995) also bear witness to that. Robert Rice writes: "It is known that in 1704 Vivaldi’s salary was increased to cover his teaching of the viole all'inglese - the generic term for instruments with sympathetic strings." However, others believe that this name refers to the viola da gamba.

The two most unconventional pieces are the concertos RV 97 and 540. The former belongs among the genre of the concerti da camera. The combination of the viola d'amore and an ensemble of wind instruments is remarkable: two horns, two oboes and bassoon. The horns and oboes are asked to be play muted which is necessary to guarantee a satisfying balance within the ensemble. In the Concerto in d minor (RV 540) which has solo parts for viola d'amore and lute the strings have to play with mutes as well. Especially the lute could easily be blown away by the string ensemble. Otherwise the two instruments match ideally. Notable is also that the Concerto in F opens with a short slow section (largo) before turning to an allegro tempo. The slow movement has the texture of a trio sonata: the upper parts are played by viola d'amore and oboe, the basso continuo by the bassoon.

Although the viola d'amore is by nature a rather intimate instrument one can leave it to Vivaldi to explore its virtuosic capabilities to the full. That comes to the fore in the frequent use of double stopping, for instance in the last movement from the Concerto in d minor (RV 392), or in the inclusion of a cadenza over a pedal point in the closing movement from the Concerto in d minor (RV 393). It is in the slow movement that the lyrical qualities of the viola d'amore make themselves felt. The slow movement from the Concerto in d minor (RV 395) exists in two versions; one of them - the one played here - belongs to a later reworking of this concerto for violin.

The fact that the viola d'amore is not a very common instrument means that these concertos are not that often played or recorded. I don't know how many discs with the complete set are available. I already referred to Catherine Mackintosh's recording; she confines herself to the six concertos RV 392 to 397; the other two concertos are omitted. These are included in Fabio Biondi's fine recording for Virgin Classics. But there is certainly room for another recording and therefore this disc deserves to be welcomed, especially as Rachel Barton Pine delivers very good performances. She plays with much panache and Ars Antigua follows her all the way. The ensemble plays with six violins, two violas, two cellos and violone. Although I probably would prefer a slightly smaller ensemble the balance is alright. Hopkinson Smith is a sensitive partner in the Concerto RV 540.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Rachel Barton Pine
Hopkinson Smith

CD Reviews