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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): 12 Concertos op. 8

[I]a "Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione Opus 8"
Pavlo Beznosiuk, violin
The Avison Ensemble
Dir: Pavlo Beznosiuk
rec: Nov 29 - Dec 5, 2009, Cambridge, St George's Chesterton
Linn Records - CKD 365 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.54'10")

[II]b "The Four Seasons - Violin Concertos"
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Nicholas McGegan

rec: Dec 9 - 11, 2010, Nicasio, CA, Skywalker Sound
Philharmonia Baroque Productions - PBP-03 (© 2011) (75'30")

Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269)ab [1]; Concerto in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315)ab [1]; Concerto in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293)ab [1]; Concerto in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297)ab [1]; Concerto in E flat, op. 8,5 'La Tempesta di Mare' (RV 253)a [1]; Concerto in C, op. 8,6 'Il Piacere' (RV 180)a [1]; Concerto in d minor, op. 8,7 (RV 242)a [1]; Concerto in g minor, op. 8,8 (RV 332)a [1]; Concerto in d minor, op. 8,9 (RV 454)a [1]; Concerto in Bes, op. 8,10 'La Caccia' (RV 362)a [1]; Concerto in D, op. 8,11 (RV 210)a [1]; Concerto in C, op. 8,12 (RV 449)a [1]; Concerto in E 'L'amoroso' (RV 271)b; Concerto in e minor 'Il favorito' (RV 277)b; Concerto in B flat (RV 375)b

Source: [1] Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, op. 8, 1725

Many of Vivaldi's concertos bear titles. They are sometimes referred to as 'programme music', but that is mostly incorrect. There is a difference between 'programme music' and 'descriptive music'. The former has a story line or illustrates a sequence of events, whereas the latter only depicts a phenomenon or an emotion. And to make things even more complicated: many pieces of the baroque era are descriptive, even though they bear no titles at all. Most of Vivaldi's concertos with titles belong to the category of 'descriptive music', like la notte (the night) or la tempesta di mare (the storm at sea). The Concerto in E 'L'amoroso' (RV 271) which is included in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's disc is an example of a concerto which refers to an emotion. 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. There can be no doubt about their programmatic character, because Vivaldi added four sonnets describing the features of the various seasons. In order to leave no doubt about 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.

There are many recordings of these four concertos in the catalogue. They are mostly performed independently, without the other eight concertos of the Op. 8 set. Those who only want to have the Four Seasons will probably not purchase a recording of a whole set. That is a shame as the other concertos are not in any way inferior to these four. Anyway, that makes it less useful to compare the recording of The Avison Ensemble with other recent recordings of the Four Seasons. I have therefore chosen the recording of the complete set by Stefano Montanari and the Accademia Bizantina, directed by Ottavio Dantone, released with the concertos Opus 3 by Arts. I was generally enthusiastic about their performances, even though I find the size of the ensemble, including seven violins, debatable.

In comparison I have strong reservations about both recordings reviewed here. The Avison Ensemble and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) are even larger than the Accademia Bizantina, with 9 and 11 violins respectively. It is not easy to decide what the common size of instrumental ensembles in Vivaldi's time was. The orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietą allowed larger scorings than one instrument per part. But that was probably the exception. What is more important is the relationship between the solo instrument and the tutti. Whatever the size of the instrumental body, the soloist is always primus inter pares; solo concertos of the baroque era are ensemble pieces, not - as in the romantic era - for a soloist and an orchestra. In PBO's recording Elizabeth Blumenstock is too much in front of the orchestra and seems even not to be part of it. In comparision, Pavlo Beznosiuk is more integrated in the ensemble. What these two recordings have in common is a lack of transparency. That isn't only due to the size of the orchestras: the performance of the Accademia Bizantina is clearly better in this respect.

There is little to choose between the performances of Pavlo Beznosiuk and Elizabeth Blumenstock. Both are fine violinists and have no technical problems in realizing the demanding solo part. Some effects come better off in one performance, others in the other. Let me just mention a couple of things.
Both interpretations of the first concerto are too tame. Blumenstock depicts the bird singing in the first movement better than Beznosiuk. Not much is made in either recording of the repeated notes in the second movement which are a depiction of the barking of the shepherd's dog. In the last movement both violinists fail to illustrate the dancing of nymphs and shepherds.
The second concerto is rather well done by both, but Beznosiuk makes the most of the imitation of cuckoo, turtledove and goldfinch in the first movement. The cuckoo is virtually inaudible in Blumenstock's performance. The threatening atmosphere in the second movement is also slightly better with Beznosiuk, partly due to his slower tempo.
The first movement of the third concerto describes the dance and song of the peasants. It is notable that Beznosiuk plays it largely legato. It reminds me of the sound of the musette, often associated with the countryside. Was that the thought behind this decision? Ms Blumenstock plays it more like dance music, but she makes a bit too heavy weather of it. The last movement is a hunting scene, and at the end the prey dies. I particularly like the way the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra plays the last phrase piano: the music dies with the prey.
The last concerto is the least satisfying in both performances. The first movement lacks subtlety, and there is more to it than both suggest as Stefano Montanari's recording shows. The falling raindrops come off better in Beznosiuk's interpretation than in Ms Blumenstock's. The latter movement is again most differentiated with Montanari. In the first movement of this concerto the distance between the solo violin of Elizabeth Blumenstock and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is all too obvious and here it is more of a problem than elsewhere.

There is not just one way to perform these concertos. Nowadays we are used to hear them in rather theatrical recordings by Italian ensembles. Sometimes they tend to exaggerate, as I recently observed while listening to an almost caricature-like performance by Forma Antiqva (Winter & Winter, 2012). Beznosiuk and Blumenstock are more or less at the other side of the spectrum, and reflect the more restrained Anglo-Saxon approach. Despite the size of the ensemble Stefano Montanari and Ottavio Dantone seem to have found an approach which is just right, being theatrical and evocative, but still observing the baroque ideal of balance and good taste.

The Avison Ensemble also offers the other eight concertos from Op. 8. Here again I prefer the Accademia Bizantina, especially because of better articulation, a more relaxed way of playing and a more differentiated treatment of the notes and of dynamics. For the concertos 9 and 12 Vivaldi has indicated the oboe as the alternative for the violin. Ottavio Dantone has given them to the oboe, in Beznosiuk's performance they are played by the violin. It would have been nice to have them in both versions - there was enough space left on both discs.

The PBO's recording includes three other violin concertos. The performances are rather good, but the size of the ensemble and the position of the solo violin in the ensemble is problematic once again. The recording of the concertos RV 271 and 277 by Enrico Casazza and La Magnificą Comunita is much more an ensemble effort with the violinist acting as part of the body of strings.

To sum up: both recordings have nice things to offer, but they fall short in fully exploring the character of Vivaldi's concertos.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

The Avison Ensemble
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

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