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"Rebel, Vivaldi: 4 Elements, 4 Seasons"

Midori Seiler, violina
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

rec: Sept 2009, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902061 (© 2010) (65'21")

Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Les Éléments, ballet suite; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): [Le Quattro Stagioni] 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

At first sight the combination of Rebel and Vivaldi may seem a little odd. What do they have in common that they are played in one programme? This disc is the spin-off of a theatrical production in which the two works were staged and acted. The programme notes don't specifically mention this. It is only referred to in the biography of the orchestra, and the last page of the booklet mentions the DVD of this production. That DVD did I receive together with the disc. But as I have no feeling for the theatre whatsoever I decided not to review it here, and concentrate on the musical performance only.

The fact that these two works were originally performed in the theatre has left its mark on the interpretation. A theatrical performance makes other demands than a performance in the concert hall, let alone a recording in the studio. This probably explains why Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni are played here with a pretty large orchestra, split into two groups. Each consists of four violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord. In addition we get the solo violin of Midori Seiler and three obbligato instruments: viola, cello and lute. This results in a much more powerful sound that we have got used to in recent times, when these four concertos were performed with small ensembles, sometimes even with one instrument per part.

There are other features which make this disc different from others, like the amount of freedom in the realisation of the score. There are several passages in the solo part which are questionable, like the sliding over the strings in the first movement of L'Autumno, and the drones which precede the third movement of La Primavera. This kind of things may work in a theatrical production, but don't hold very well on disc as with repeated listening they start to annoy.

The same kind of freedom is taken in the ballet suite Les Eléments by Jean-Féry Rebel. The third section is a chaconne, which is repeated at the end. Again, this may be appropriate in a theatrical production, musically it doesn't make sense. The same is true for the - electronic, of course - reproduction of birdsong in a number of movements. And like in Vivaldi, I believe that this is becoming tiresome with repeated listening. The orchestra is quite large here as well, and historically that is less of a problem than in Vivaldi. There are two harpsichords, which make quite a lot of noise, and are partly used as percussion instruments. Considering the inclusion of percussion in the score as it is this seems rather superfluous.

In content there are certainly similarities between these two pieces. And musically speaking a combination of Vivaldi and Rebel is less odd than it seems: Vivaldi was very popular in France, and in particular Le Quattro Stagioni were frequently performed in the Concert Spirituel. Particularly La Primavera was often played: between 1728 and 1763 it was programmed at least fourteen times. In regard to performance practice this could have inspired the ensemble to adopt the French low pitch of a=392Hz, but that is not the case. The booklet doesn't give any information about that, but a comparison with the recording by L'Orfeo Barockorchester (Phoenix Editions) shows that the Akademie für Alte Musik is playing at a higher pitch. This is one of the reasons this performance of Rebel's Les Éléments is not quite competitive.

In fact, the same goes for Vivaldi: this performance, as technically brilliant as it may be, is less convincing and satisfying than the best recordings which are already available. All in all, I consider this disc a curiosity rather than a really worthwhile addition to the catalogue of interpretations of both Vivaldi and Rebel. For those who have feeling for the theatre it is probably recommendable to purchase the DVD instead. There you get picture and sound, whereas the disc delivers only a sound which doesn't make that much sense without the picture.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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