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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Violin Concertos

[I] "Concerti per violino VI 'La boemia'"
Fabio Biondi, violin
Europa Galante
Dir: Fabio Biondi
rec: Nov 28 - 30, 2017, Padua, Sala della Carità
Naïve - OP 30572 (© 2018) (68'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in C (RV 186); Concerto in e minor (RV 278); Concerto in F (RV 282); Concerto in F (RV 288); Concerto in g minor (RV 330); Concerto in B flat (RV 380)

Fabio Ravasi, Barbara Altobello, Luca Giardini, Rossella Borsoni, Elin Gabrielsson, Silvia Falavigna, violin; Pablo de Pedro, viola; Alessandro Andriani, cello; Patxi Montero, double bass; Giangiacomo Pinardi, archlute; Paola Poncet, harpsichord, organ

[II] "The Four Seasons"
Leila Schayegh, violin
Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci
rec: August 2018, Binningen 9CH), Heilig Kreuz Kirche
Glossa - GCD 924203 (© 2019) (54'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269); Concerto in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315); Concerto in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293); Concerto in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297); Concerto in D (RV 222) (andante); Sonata in d minor, op. 1,12 'La Follia' (RV 63)


No composer of the baroque era has written so many solo concertos as Antonio Vivaldi. Among these are a remarkable number for instruments which were either relatively new, at least in Italy (the oboe), or which were mostly used in an accompanying role (the bassoon). Obviously, most of his solo concertos were scored for his own instrument, the violin. Vivaldi himself was one of the great virtuosos of his time, and a number of his concertos were probably intended for his own use. The technical requirements of his violin concertos are different. A number of them were published, mostly in collections of six or twelve, in Amsterdam. In several of them the violin is joined by other violins or a cello. The solo parts in the printed concertos are mostly within the grasp of skilled amateurs. That is different in the case of the concertos which have come down to us in manuscript. They often include solo parts which are virtuosic. In addition to those which Vivaldi may have written for his own use, he composed concertos for his pupils at the Ospedale della Pietà, whereas some may have been written for other professional violinists, sometimes maybe commissioned by them.

The first disc under review here is the sixth volume devoted to the violin concertos which is part of the Naïve Vivaldi edition. For his programme Fabio Biondi selected concertos of different character, which reflect the variety in this part of Vivaldi's' oeuvre. The title of this disc refers to the region where the manuscripts of these concertos have been found. That does not mean that they have been written there. Vivaldi had close ties with the Bohemian Count Wenzel von Morzin, and dedicated his Concertos Op. 8 - including the famous 'Four Seasons' - to him. He may also have visited Prague, where some of his operas were performed. Biondi, in his liner-notes, does mention that there is no evidence that Vivaldi ever performed as a soloist in Bohemia. He assumes that, unless these concertos were composed for a Bohemian patron, they were written for Venice, also because they omit any influence of Bohemian traditional music, which is present in some other works.

Biondi analyses the various concertos. Some of them belong to Vivaldi's early years, but that has no direct connection to their technical requirements. The Concerto in g minor (RV 330), for instance, is an early work, but technically demanding, and includes double stopping, passagework in the top register and chords. Another early work, the Concerto in F (RV 288), "appears to belong rather to the category of music intended for wide diffusion (...)". The fact that the last movement includes double stopping shows that non-professional musicians often had considerable skills. The Concerto in B flat (RV 380) is considered a 'mature' work, and includes early signs of the Neapolitan dotted rhythms. In the last stages of his career Vivaldi had to deal with the growing influence of the Neapolitan style.

This disc is another fine addition to the fast growing Vivaldi discography. The track-list does not indicate if any of the six concertos included here are first recordings, but as only a part of Vivaldi's huge output in this category is available on disc, it seems likely that one or some are indeed new to the catalogue. Even so, it is hard to imagine better performances than are on offer here, at least technically. As far as the interpretations are concerned, I would like to mention two things.

Firstly, I often note that Biondi's violin playing is quite different from what I usually hear from his colleagues. I am not sure about the reasons. Is it because his technique is different, probably not entirely free of what is common in the playing of 'modern' instruments? He certainly uses more vibrato that most of his colleagues, and that is one of the reasons he will never be one of my favourite violinists. The other issue is connected to the present disc. Biondi writes: "In the years when he appeared as a performing violinist, Vivaldi was often described as a fanciful inventor of cadenzas, passages a solo and improvisations. I took these accounts as my model for creating linking cadenzas between movements in different keys." This aspect of performance practice is highly questionable. It seems to me that the insertion of a cadenza at the end of a movement is fundamentally different from what Biondi is doing here. He does not provide us with any historical evidence that Vivaldi or performers of his time connected individual movements through cadenzas.

I already mentioned the Concertos Op. 8, which open with four bearing the collective title Le Quattro Stagioni, generally known with the English title of 'The Four Seasons'. They are among Vivaldi's most popular works and are as often performed and recorded as Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Leila Schayegh has added her own interpretation to the long list of recordings that are available.

They are not the only compositions with titles from Vivaldi's pen, but they are unique in that Vivaldi added sonnets of his own, describing in words what he aimed at painting with his music. This is an important guide for the interpretations of these concertos. Even so, they allow performers considerable freedom to give their interpretations a personal touch. I don't know all the recordings in the catalogue, but over the years I have heard quite a number, and they are very different. One of the earliest recordings on period instruments was the one by Simon Standage and the English Concert, directed by Trevor Pinnock. It was a rather good performance and was a favourite of mine for many years. In comparison, the recording by Alice Harnoncourt and the Concentus musicus Wien, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, was completely different: much more theatrical, with stronger contrasts and a more thorough exploration of the effects that Vivaldi requires from performers. It is the latter approach which had a strong appeal on Italian performers, and when they started to play on period instruments, the first recordings of these concertos were in the same vein.

Unfortunately, pieces like these concertos often entice performers to do too much and to exaggerate, especially as they want to be different from others. Over the years I have heard quite some Italian performances which I considered going overboard in their attempts to stand out. Sometimes this resulted in performances that were almost caricatural. There is no danger of that here.

In the booklet Leila Schayegh writes: "Vivaldi's music appears to delve much further into detail than its original sonnets and thus opens up a wide range of possibilities to colourfully paint out the outlined scenes while listening and playing them. An acoustic cinema of sorts thus arose in my mind and I would like to share it with you." This is one way in which a performer can give these concertos a personal touch, without violating the intentions of the composer. What we have here are performances that are certainly theatrical, but without any exaggeration of the effects Vivaldi intended performers to realise. This performance is probably one which mixes the best of two worlds, as it is not only dramatic, but also includes much lyricism.

Two features need to be mentioned. Firstly, one of the instruments in the ensemble is the psaltery. It is a relatively recent development that this instrument participates in performances of baroque music, and in particular in Italian repertoire. It seems that it played quite a prominent role during the 17th and early 18th centuries, but it is probably impossible to say whether it was part of the instrumental ensemble in performances such as we have here. From that perspective its participation in some of these concertos seems rather speculative. The same goes for the second feature: every concerto, except the first, opens with a short improvisation on the violin. That seems rather questionable. It is known that performances of sonatas often started with a short improvisation (on the harpsichord), but whether this practice was also applied to solo concertos is something of which I would like to see historical evidence.

These two aspects don't compromise my appreciation of this recording. The addition of soundscape does, though. For me, it really damages the second concerto, L'estate, where it has been added in the second and third movements. In particular in the latter I find it rather annoying.

Although the four 'Seasons' concertos don't take much time, we get only two additional pieces, bringing the playing time to a meagre 54 minutes. The andante from the Concerto in D (RV 222), is based on one of the most frequently used bassi ostinati, the ciaccona. It offers Schayegh the opportunity to show her skills in the lyrical department. In the concertos she receives excellent support from Musica Fiorita, which in recent years has developed into one of the finest of its kind. That comes also to the fore in the performances of the Sonata in d minor on La Follia, a very popular tune at the time.

However, despite this and although I greatly admire Leila Schayegh's artistry, I can recommend this disc only with considerable reservation.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Leila Schayegh
Europa Galante
Musica Fiorita

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