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[A] Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Concerti per violino"
Florian Deuter, violin
Harmonie Universelle
Dir: Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman

rec: Nov 2007, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Eloquentia - EL 0815 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (1.49'10")

[B] Antonio VIVALDI: "Concerti per il violino II 'Di sfida'"
Anton Steck, violin
Modo Antiquo
Dir: Federico Maria Sardelli

rec: Feb & August 2006, Dobbiaco (I), Centro Culturale (Sala Gustav Mahler)
Naïve - OP 30427 (© 2007) (55'08")

[C] Antonio VIVALDI: "Concertos for two violins"
Viktoria Mullova, Giuliano Carmignola, violin
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Andrea Marcon

rec: Oct 2007, Dobbiaco (I), Centro Culturale (Sala Gustav Mahler)
Archiv - 477 7466 (© 2007) (61'02")

[A] Concerto in C (RV 175); Concerto in C (RV 176); Concerto in D (RV 220); Concerto in d minor (RV Anh 10); Concerto in e minor (RV 274); Concerto in e minor (RV 275); Concerto in F (RV 291); Concerto in f (RV Anh 130); Concerto in A (RV 338); Concerto in a minor (RV 355); Concerto in B flat (RV 377); Concerto in B flat (RV 381)
[B] Concerto in D (RV 232); Concerto in d minor 'senza cantin' (RV 243); Concerto in E (RV 264); Concerto in g minor (RV 325); Concerto in A (RV 353); Concerto in B flat (RV 368)
[C] Concerto in c minor (RV 509); Concerto in D (RV 511); Concerto in d minor (RV 514); Concerto in G (RV 516); Concerto in a minor (RV 523); Concerto in B flat (RV 524)

Antonio Vivaldi had a strong and lasting influence on the form of the solo concerto. In particular the two collections of concertos published as opus 3 and opus 4 were evidence of Vivaldi's reform of this genre. As these concertos must be the result of many years of experimentation one wonders what was before. That has remained a mystery as relatively few compositions from Vivaldi's early years have been preserved, and many pieces from this period are of doubtful authenticity. Recent research and new discoveries have changed this. The authenticity of a number of concertos has now been established, and this allows a better picture of the way Vivaldi moved from the old-fashioned concerto form to the model he presented in his opuses 3 and 4. The two discs by Harmonie Universelle present 12 concertos most of which have never been recorded before (the booklet doesn't indicate which concertos). All but one (RV 274) are definitely authentic works by Vivaldi.

It is interesting to find here three concertos which are written in the tradional form: the Concerto in d minor (RV Anh 10) and the Concerto in C (RV 175) are in seven movements, the Concerto in a minor (RV 355) in five. The second (RV 175) is in fact a kind of concerto grosso, in which the violin is nothing more than one instrument in the ensemble. Stylistically it is close to the concertos of Giuseppe Torelli. The Concerto in a minor (RV 355) is older, but more modern in style. It can be considered the first virtuoso violin concerto in history, in which the violin is an individual. The same is true for the Concerto in d minor (RV Anh 10) which employs the old form which is combined with modern virtuosity.

In the other concertos in this set we meet the Vivaldi as we know him from his later violin concertos: strong contrasts in tempo, scale passages, arpeggios, use of high positions and double stopping. It is pretty amazing how different these concertos are, for all their similarities in technical fireworks they contain. And I would like to put attention to the slow middle movements which contain a lot of expression. A good example is the adagio from the Concerto in F (RV Anh 130) which Olivier Fourès, in his programme notes, characterises as a 'lamento'. Likewise, the fast movements are not all about virtuosity: the unexpected turns in the solo part of the Concerto in F (RV 291) are evidence of substantial expression in them as well.

The performances by Harmonie Universelle, an ensemble which is mostly known for its recordings of 17th century music, in particular from the German-Austrian region, are breathtaking. Florian Deuter's performances are technically absolutely faultless, and he meets the technical challenges in this music with ease. He not only impressively and convincingly demonstrates the brilliance of Vivaldi's solo parts, but also explores the expressive quality of this repertoire. The ensemble also gives outstanding performances of the tutti, producing a warm and strong sound, but also providing sensitive support to the solo violin in the slow movements.

Considering the historical importance and the musical quality of this repertoire as well as the high level of the performances by Florian Deuter and Harmonie Universelle this is a must-have for all Vivaldi lovers.

I am not quite sure whether the same can be said about the second disc, called 'Di sfida'. The Italian word "sfida" means "challenge", and that is something one can associate with Vivaldi. As Olivier Fourès writes in his programme notes: "As the worthy heir to the Italian violinists of the early seventeenth century, with their imitations of natural sounds, illustrations of a programme or exalted improvisations, the prete rosso was even to make the setting of challenges one of his principal creative characteristics (...)". The concertos on this disc all date from the 1720s and 1730s, and show a further development of the virtuosity we met in the early concertos in the recording of Harmonie Universelle. Vivaldi must have written some of these concertos for his own use, but also for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, one of whom was even considered the best violinist in Italy. The programme of this disc provides a sampling of all violin techniques of Vivaldi's time, and he combines them often in such a way that some concertos become almost unplayable. At least the last piece on this disc, the Concerto in B flat (RV 368), is recorded here for the first time. These concertos, and in particular the latter work, have led Anton Steck to believe that it was Vivaldi rather than Locatelli who was the greatest violin virtuoso in history before Paganini.

This is all very impressive stuff. But is it musically rewarding? That is where I have my doubts. There is certainly some expression, but mostly in the slow movements only. In my view the fast movements concentrate so much on violinistic pyrotechnics that there is little room for musical substance. It just shows how something good - like exploring the technical possibilities of an instrument - can easily derail when it becomes a goal in itself. This disc is definitely interesting from a historical point of view, as it shows the level of playing of Vivaldi and of some of his pupils, and should be a lesson for those musicians who may still think that the music of the baroque era is technically easy in comparison to later repertoire. And I have nothing but admiration for the way Anton Steck and Il Modo Antiquo perform this repertoire. Steck is one of the most virtuoso players of the baroque violin of our time, and I can understand this music was a great challenge to him. But if you are looking for solo concertos by Vivaldi other than those which were part of the printed collections, and you just want to hear good music, the first recording reviewed here is much more rewarding than the second, which is little more than a curiosity.

Apart from a large number of concertos for violin solo Vivaldi also composed a number of concertos for two violins, with strings and bc. In total only six of them were published during his lifetime, four of which in his opus 3, L'Estro armonico. But, like in the case of the violin concertos, it was mostly those concertos which are modest in their technical requirements which were published. The more virtuosic pieces were probably written for the girls of the Ospedale rather than for the European market. The six concertos recorded by Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmognola require great technical skills. In these the two violins are involved in a dialogue or play in parallels. As usual the expression is mostly reduced to the slow movements which in four of the concertos see the accompaniment reduced to basso continuo. In most concertos the two violins are treated on equal terms. Only in the last movements of the Concerto in G (RV 516) and the Concerto in B flat (RV 524) one of the violins is taking the lead with the second violin lending support.

Technically Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmignola are each other's equals, and the develop a lively interaction during the musical discourse. They get very good support from the Venice Baroque Orchestra. But I am rather disappointed by the interpretation as a whole. That has first and foremost to do with the violins. Viktoria Mullova doesn't play a real baroque violin. She has a modern violin with gut strings, but that in itself doesn't make the instrument a baroque violin. And in particular in the higher ranges of the instrument's tessitura her violin sounds sometimes a bit scratchy and sharp; it is in particular here when one recognizes the 'modern' violin. I am not quite sure about the character of Giuliano Carmignola's violin. It is the 1732 Baillot Stradivarius which was lent to him by the Fondazione Casa di Risparmio in Bologna. From the pieces of information I could find on the internet I gather this is also an instrument which is not in its original state, but was later 'modernized'. The fact that this instrument sounds a little more like a baroque violin is probably due to Carmignola's playing who is more of a specialist in historical performance practice than Ms Mullova. But the overall sound the two violins produce is not what I like to hear in this repertoire. I even would go so far as to say that these interpretations can hardly be called 'authentic'.

I also have some problems with the playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra. The accents are very harsh, even percussionistic, and the endless repetition of the same banging accents becomes a little too much after a while. I also don't see the point of the long held closing chords which become a bit stereotypical and which I have previously noted in recordings by this ensemble.

All in all, this disc is a disappointment.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Giuliano Carmignola
Harmonie Universelle
Modo Antiquo
Viktoria Mullova
Anton Steck

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