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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): The Four Seasons & Concertos for multiple instruments

[I] "The Four Seasons"
Kati Debretzeni, violin
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
rec: Feb 9 - 10, 2013, London, St. Jude's-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Signum Classics - SIGCD377 (© 2014) (41'22")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269) [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315) [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293) [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297) [1]

[II] "The Four Seasons & String Concerti"
Bojan Cicica, Huw Danielb; Johannes Pramsohlerc, Zefira Valovad, violin
European Union Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: June 22 - 24, 2014, Echternach, Trifolion (Atrium)
Obsidian - CCL CD713 (© 2014) (52'50")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto for strings and bc in D (RV 124); Concerto for strings and bc in g minor (RV 157); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269)b [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315)a [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293)c [1]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297)d [1]

[III] "Concerti per molti istromenti"
Modo Antiquo
Dir: Federico Maria Sardelli
rec: July 1995, Florence, Chiesa di S. Maria degli Angeli
Tactus - TB 672257 (R) (© 2013) (55'31")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Concerto for 2 horns, strings and bc in F (RV 538); Concerto for violin, 2 horns, 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc in F (RV 569); Concerto for 2 violins, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc in d minor (RV 566); Concerto grosso à 10 stromenti for violin, 2 corni da caccia, timpani, 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc in D (RV 562a); Concerto per Sua Altezza Reale di Sassonia for violin, oboe, 2 recorders, 2 oboes [ripieno], bassoon, strings and bc in g minor (RV 576);


These three discs shed light on two quite different aspects of Vivaldi's oeuvre, both of which are vintage Vivaldi. The first two discs include a cycle of four concertos which belong to the most popular of the baroque era: Le Quattro Stagioni or 'The Four Seasons'. In form they are conventional: concertos for violin, strings and basso continuo - a genre which was one of the most common in Vivaldi's time. However, their descriptive nature makes them stand apart. Such pieces are not Vivaldi's invention: descriptive music came in vogue in the early 17th century when instrumental virtuosity made its appearance on the music stage. That same time saw the rise of opera which also influenced other genres. Music - especially in Italy - became increasingly theatrical, and that is expressed in, for instance, pieces of a descriptive or programmatic character.

These two categories are not always clearly discernible, but in the case of Le Quattro Stagioni there isn't a kind of story unfolding. They are musical descriptions of a sort of tableaux vivants laid down in the sonnets which accompany the concertos. They are probably from the pen of Vivaldi himself. He considered them important for the interpretation as he wrote down the words in all the parts. Recordings deal with them differently. In most productions the sonnets are printed in the booklet in the original and in a translation. The Obsidian disc includes four tracks where Antonio de Sarlo, one of the orchestra's violinists, reads them in Italian. That is nice but doesn't contribute substantially to the understanding of Vivaldi's compositions or the way they are interpreted. The booklet of the OAE's recording is more interesting in this respect as every sonnet is followed by CD timings: the various elements in the text are connected to the respective points in the recording - in minutes and seconds - where they are expressed in the music.

There is a surplus of recordings of these concertos, and there is every reason to question the point of releasing another two. But that is the way it is, and I have to say that I generally enjoyed both of them. I am not always enthusiastic about performances by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but here they show that they have learnt a thing or two from their Italian colleagues. These performances are much more colourful and theatrical than those by British ensembles in the 1980s and 90s. Kati Debretzeni has captured the character of these concertos quite well and on the whole succeeds in realising the things Vivaldi wanted to express. The end of the third movement from the Autumn is a bit disappointing: it is the end of the hunt and the prey dies, but that is not conveyed in the performance. In his interpretation Johannes Pramsohler plays the repeat of the last phrase piano and lets it fade away which is quite effective. On the other hand, in the slow movement (adagio molto) the harpsichord is far too dominant; in OAE's recording the balance is much better.

In their recording bird song is added to the first movement of Spring which is rather kitschy. It is the task of the instruments illustrate the birds hailing spring "with happy song", as the sonnet says, and if they do that well - and they do indeed - it is completely superfluous to ask the birds to do the same. In Winter the first movement is more evocative in Debretzeni's performance than in the hands of Zefira Valova and Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Debretzeni also takes a little more time, not because her tempi are generally slower but rather because she slows down at certain points and includes short pauses here and there, which creates some tension in her performances. That is one of the assets of her recording. On balance you can hardly go wrong with either of these discs. These are interpretations which embrace the good things Italian performances have brought us but avoid the eccentricities of some of them. It is regrettable that both discs are so short in playing time. At least Mortensen offers two concertos for strings, so-called ripieno concertos which are both nicely played.

Concertos of a descriptive character are not a specialty of Vivaldi but they definitely play a more important role in his oeuvre than in that of his contemporaries. The 'Four Seasons' are just four of such works; other famous pieces bear titles such as La notte (the night), Il gardellino (the goldfinch) and Il tempesta di mare (the storm at sea). The concerti per molti istromenti or con molti stromenti constitute another important category in Vivaldi's oeuvre. The catalogue mentions more than 30 concertos with solo parts for three or more instruments, often of different families. The best-known are the concertos from his op. 3, published in Amsterdam in 1711 under the title L'Estro armonico. The first concerto of the Tactus disc is also connected to Amsterdam. The Concerto in D (RV 562a) is one of two versions of the same concerto, and this version is part of a manuscript of ten concertos which were performed in Amsterdam on 7 January 1738 on the occasion of the first centenary of the town's theatre. It has been suggested that Vivaldi himself was present at this occasion, but that has been questioned. Interestingly it is the only concerto by Vivaldi which explicitly refers to the participation of timpani. These were often included in concertos with parts for trumpets without being specifically mentioned. Here they play with the horns in passages marked as 'trio'. This concerto is suitable for the occasion as the opening movement starts with a kind of fanfare. The second movement is for violin and strings alone, and is reminiscent of the slow movement from the 'Autumn' in the 'Four Seasons'.

Vivaldi had close contacts with the court in Dresden where his music was quite popular, partly thanks to the promotional activities of Johann Georg Pisendel who had met Vivaldi in Venice. He had taken lessons from him, although Vivaldi considered him rather as a colleague. It resulted in Vivaldi composing concertos specifically for the court, such as the Concerto in g minor (RV 576, with the addition per Sua Altezza Reale di Sassonia (for His Royal Highness of Saxonia). This Highness, Friedrich August, loved eccentricities, and that comes to the fore in Vivaldi making extensive use of unisono, especially in the first movement. Many of these concertos are quite demanding, but the court orchestra in Dresden had many virtuosos in his ranks, and the performance of such pieces will not have given them any trouble.

It is mostly not known for which performers Vivaldi composed these concertos. Some may have been the result of commissions, but in the Ospedale della Pietà he had many players of different instruments at his disposal, many of them were true virtuosos. It is remarkable that a number of these concertos include parts for two horns which were among the most difficult of the time. They participate in the Concerto in F (RV 569) which closes the programme. Like in the opening concerto RV 562a the violin is the dominant solo instrument; it is on its own, supported by the tutti strings, in the slow movement. This difference in scoring is not uncommon: in concertos with solo parts for brass (trumpet, horn) the latter mostly keep silent in the slow movements. That is also the case in the Concerto in F (RV 538) for two horns, strings and bc. It is not catalogued among the concerti con molti stromenti but it could have its legal place there as in fact it includes a third solo instrument. The slow movement (largo) is scored for cello and basso continuo. Something comparable happens in the Concerto in d minor (RV 566): the largo is a trio for two recorders and bassoon. The first movement opens with a single chord of the tutti which is followed by passages for the various pairs of solo instruments.

This disc is reissued by Tactus which also released the first edition; it was later included by Brilliant Classics in its Vivaldi Edition. If you own that disc you still may consider purchasing this reissue because - unlike the Brilliant Classic disc - it comes with interesting liner-notes by Federico Maria Sardelli which is helpful in putting this part of Vivaldi's oeuvre in its historical perspective. The performances are vibrant and engaging; the virtuosity of the soloists - especially the horn players - is impressive. This is a disc which is well suited to repeated listening.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

European Union Baroque Orchestra
Modo Antiquo
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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