Brilliant have licensed from a range of companies,
some no longer with us, others very much so, an assortment of Vivaldi
concerto discs recorded over a period of almost 20 years. Standards
are high, with consistently good sound and a conspectus of playing styles.
Only the bassoon concerto disc uses modern instruments but we get a
fascinating picture of how the various groups feel their original instruments
should be used, from the radical rethinking of Il Giardino Armonico
to the well-phrased performances of the English Concert and Musica ad
Rhenum where very often the only way you can be sure these are original
instruments derives from the fact that the pitch is about a semitone
lower than we use today.
I am a bit nonplussed as to who is going to want all
these concertos, since the real variable is Vivaldiís inspiration. There
is certainly some fine music here, but also some you might not wish
to hear again, or recognise if you did. If someone were at this moment
to play me a Vivaldi bassoon concerto, I certainly wouldnít be able
to say if it were one of those I heard here; these, in particular, seemed
to me to be very run-of-the-mill pieces.
Still, the asking price is low and unless youíre an
out-and-out completist you might feel youíre now fixed for life as far
as Vivaldi concertos are concerned. The discs come without any notes
Ė surely a first-time buyer of "The Seasons" needs to have
Vivaldiís sonnets or at least a summary of them, and in several other
cases, duly noted below, I feel that a little background information
would have been useful. Still, most of these concertos are straightforward
and self-explanatory, and probably little or nothing is known about
their history anyway.
CDs 1 and 2
Il Cimento dellíArmonia e dellíInvenzione, op. 8 (12 violin concertos
of which 1-4 are The Four Seasons); Concerto in D for flute and strings,
RV 429, Concerto in B minor for cello and strings, RV 424.
Simon Standage (violin),
Stephen Preston (flute), Anthony Pleeth (cello), The English Concert/Trevor
Recorded in 1978, licensed from CRD Records
When you get a package like this it is of no great
importance whether you are getting the "best" version of a
much-recorded work like "The Four Seasons", as long as you
at least get a good one. But as it happens this clear-headed, springy-footed,
gimmick-free performance would be a prime contender in any context.
The proto-romantic slow movements sing sweetly without ever crossing
over into romanticism of an anachronistic kind while the faster movements
are swift and joyful and are never allowed to become hustled or merely
All these comments apply to the remainder of op. 8.
If you only know "The Four Seasons" you may find the fifth
concerto a rather uninspired piece and start to wonder if there are
not good reasons why we mostly hear just the first four. Donít worry,
all the others are splendidly inventive, quite on a level with the ubiquitous
four, not least in the relatively long no. 11, which makes an especially
effective showpiece for Simon Standageís baroque violin. The continuo
player mostly uses the harpsichord but occasionally switches to a little
baroque organ to delightful effect, not least in the Largo of no. 12.
We are not told that this group uses "original
instruments" (they do), but their expertise reflects the fact that
by 1978, after the initial raw efforts, many original instrument groups
had become so good you wouldnít even notice they are using original
instruments. However, if you have perfect pitch you will notice that
the players are almost a semitone down compared with modern concert
The two "extra" concertos are not problem-free.
In the flute concerto (thatís what the "traverso" is; the
public at which these sets are aimed might have appreciated being told
this) the instrument is tuned considerably flatter than the strings.
I began by finding this had a certain rustic charm but by the slow movement
(in itself sensitively played) the only way I could listen at all was
to listen to the flute with one ear and the strings with the other,
trying to separate them entirely. It wasnít easy. Did nobody notice?
Well, I think they must have, for in the finale the flute has been properly
tuned to the strings. Were the sessions so short on time they couldnít
have gone back and redone the first two movements?
The cello concerto is the one piece where the "original
instruments" might pose a problem, for the celloís ungenerous tone
and effortful execution takes some getting used to. Indeed, the contrast
between Pleeth and Standage rather points up the progress which has
been made in this field for here, Iím afraid, is your original instrument
man as we loved to hate him when he first hit the scene.
Still, I would let these last two concertos worry me
when Iím getting a virtually flawless op. 8, beautifully recorded.
By the way, that word "Cimento" in the title
has always stumped translators, but "Trial" (used here) wonít
do. "Demonstration" is closer but sounds academic. "Apotheosis"
may be overdoing it but at least renders what Vivaldi was trying to
Concerti da camera: G minor, RV 105, A minor,
RV 86, G, RV 101, G minor, RV 107, G minor, RV 103, F, RV 98
Il Giardino Armonico
Recorded in 1988, licensed from Nuova Era
"Concerti da camera" Ė chamber concertos
Ė would, in another time and place, have been called straight chamber
music, since these are works for a small instrumental group, in one
case just recorder, oboe and bassoon, in others with added strings.
These are one-to-a-part, which could be a choice on the part of a group
which takes original performance practice to extremes, but it sounds
like the right choice. Multiple strings would have created no end of
balance problems and probably have falsified the composerís intentions
since there is no attempt to contrast a solo group with a larger ritornello
one. In some cases a continuo is not used; when there is one it is pretty
Here we come to the point. The English Concert performances
on CDs 1-2 used original instruments to create an effect very little
different from the cleaner-limbed modern instrument performances. Il
Giardino Armonico seem to want to wipe the slate of all our previous
assumptions about how this music is played. Attacks are brittle, rasping
from the strings, clucking from the oboe and bassoon, accompanying lines
are unremittingly staccato, solo lines are allowed a modicum of legato
but anything resembling an expressive cantabile is strictly outlawed
and tempi are as fast as is humanly feasible, whether the marking is
Allegro, Largo or Presto. The differing characteristics of the various
instruments are kept in sharp relief, rather than attempting to blend
them. The difficulty of maintaining perfect intonation on the higher
reaches of the recorder is treated as a source of piquant tone-colour
rather than a problem to be overcome.
Now, it may seem as if Iím seeking a polite way of
saying itís all perfectly ghastly, but in fact the approach is carried
off with such flair and conviction as to raise real doubts as to whether
this, rather than the more traditional manner of the English Concert,
might actually be right (certainly, I donít see how both can
be). To the ears of a listener brought up in the days when original
instrument performances were only just beginning, the music sounds not
so much by Vivaldi as a mid-Twentieth Century pastiche by the likes
of Casella or even Jean Françaix (yes, itís as champagne-sparkling
as that). Try the last two movements of RV 98, the Largo to show how
impressively fascinating these performances can be at their best, and
the Presto for outright verve, the recorderís scales shooting up like
As I say, The English Concert and Il Giardino Armonico
canít both be right, but since we donít know which of them is
right youíre going to get a lot of food for thought if you go back and
forth between them. Excellent recordings.
Recorder Concertos: C minor, RV 441, C, RV 444,
F, RV 433 Ė "La Tempesta di Mare", C, RV 443, F, RV 434, G
minor, RV 439 Ė "La Notte"
Dan Laurin (recorder),
Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble
Recorded in 1991, licensed from BIS
The Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble occupy a mid-way
point between the basically traditional approach of the English Concert
and the outrageous revisionism of Il Giardino Armonico. There were times
when I felt they were neither one thing nor the other, with some spiky
slow movements (the Largo of RV 444, for example) which will not please
traditionalists and some unsmiling, over-regular scansion of rhythms
in many Allegro movements which will strike revisionists as old-fashioned.
Itís also all very close-miked (the recorder-playerís breaths before
the fast movements start are of the "Iíll-huff-and-Iíll-puff-and-Iíll-blow-your-house-down"
variety) with an aggressively brilliant harpsichord and a recorder which
dominates the busiest string textures. However, when it dawned on me
that the answer might be to listen with the volume much lower than usual,
I found I could enjoy a more concert-hall-like effect.
Part of the trouble is that Vivaldi himself has not
always provided the players with his most imaginative material in these
concertos, with the result that the less than entranced hearer is apt
to hunt around for shortcomings in the performances which explain why
his mind keeps wandering. Perhaps this is unfair, for when Vivaldi himself
is on top form they respond. The long Largo of RV 443, with its fascinating
arabesques, carries real emotional commitment, as does the Siciliana-type
Largo e cantabile of RV 434. The stringsí insistence on well-separated
notes in what are surely singing phrases (the recorder-player certainly
seems to think so) is rather dogmatic but a good deal of atmosphere
comes across all the same. They also bring much charm to the amiable
dialogues of the same concertoís Allegro ma non tanto and enter fully
into Vivaldiís rich flights of pictorial imagination in "La Notte".
So all-in-all this is still a pretty good record. The
players donít make the weaker works sound any better than they are,
but they donít short-change you over the top-notch ones either.
Lute Concertos: Concerto in D for lute, 2 violins
and strings, Trio in G minor for lute, violin and basso continuo, Trio
in C for lute, violin and basso continuo, Concerto in D minor for lute,
viola díamore and strings, Concerto in F for bassoon and strings
(lute), Nils-Erik Sparf, Tullo Galli (violins), Monica Huggett (viola
díamore), Michael McCraw (bassoon), Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble
Recorded in 1984-5, licensed from BIS
"Lute Concertos" is a misnomer, since the
two concertos with lute have other instruments as well, the two other
works with lute are trios, i.e. chamber music without an orchestra as
well, and the disc concludes with a bassoon concerto.
Given that this CD is performed by the same group as
CD 4, it is not surprising if the same comments apply. The first work
on the disc is a gem, with lots of friendly invention in the outer movements
and a slow movement full of that interior warmth which seems the birthright
of composers born in Italy. Curiously, the use of a slim group of original
instruments only emphasises the lushness, since it is shown to be essential
to the music and not something wished on it by later interpreters. If
this movement has never been taken up to accompany some film, maybe
set in Venice, itís time it was, for popularity would seem guaranteed.
Unfortunately, thereafter the music falls into the
category of mass-production baroque, decently performed. If anything
can be done to make this lesser Vivaldi appear more distinguished, it
hasnít been done here. Perhaps it is asking too much, though Iíd be
interested to hear what Il Giardino Armonico might make of them.
Bassoon Concertos: no. 18 in C, RV 467, no. 25
in F, RV 491, no. 10 in A minor, RV 500, no. 12 in A minor, RV 499,
no. 28 in C, RV 466, no. 22 in F, RV 486, no. 4 in C, RV 474, no. 15
in F, RV 487
(bassoon), English Chamber Orchestra/Philip Ledger
Recorded in 1996, licensed from ASV
These are modern instrument performances, of course,
but they have a striking family resemblance to the English Concertís
discs in their general springiness of step and unmannered liveliness.
It rather goes to show that the big question is not so much whether
the instruments are "original" or not, as what you do with
them. The bassoon has perhaps undergone more far-reaching changes and
if you compare Daniel Smith with the player who concluded the previous
disc you will hear that the modern instrument has much more "ping"
around its sound and sings out the slow movements in rather fruitier
tones. Daniel Smith seems to take the view that the fastest tempos he
can do in the quick movements are the right ones, and since his passageĖwork
is immaculate, and he still finds time for plenty of very musical phrasing
and never for a moment gives the idea he has a train to catch, I think
he can be said to have justified his view. Michael McCraw takes more
measured tempos in the outer movements of his work, raising the question
whether this was an interpretative choice or dictated by the mechanism
of the early instrument. If the "original" bassoon makes a
weaker sound, it would also be possible to find that it has a sweeter
voice in the slow movement, so not everything in the modern instrument
is pure gain.
Bassoonists must be highly grateful to Vivaldi for
having written considerably more concertos for their instrument than
all other composers of importance put together, but their gratitude
has to be tempered by the consideration that he seems to have reserved
his more routine thoughts for the medium, at least to judge from these
eight. I did find the Largo of no. 22 to be gravely attractive, and
since the invention in the outer movements is stronger than average
too, that is the concerto Iíd go for if I were a bassoonist. First movements
generally start promisingly, prompting the thought that perhaps this
will be a really good one at last, but generally the bassoon gets acres
of florid passage-work which is more interesting than hearing him practice
his scales, but not to any great degree, and the proto-romantic pictorial
Vivaldi is well out of it. Just to show I really did listen, how odd
that no. 10, in A minor, has the last movement in C major. Did Vivaldi
really do that, or is this concerto cobbled together by someone from
surviving movements of incomplete works? Fine sound.
Organ Concertos: Concerto in D minor for violin,
organ and strings, RV 541, Concerto in C for violin, cello, organ and
strings, RV 554a, Concerto in A for violin, organ and strings, RV 335
Ė "Il Rosignuolo", Concerto in F for flute, organ and strings,
RV 767, Concerto in C minor for violin, organ and strings, RV 766, Concerto
in C for violin, flute and organ, RV 779, Concerto in F for violin,
organ and strings, RV 542
(Jacob van Eycke organ, 1708, of Blauwkapel Church, Utrecht), Manfred
Kraemer (violin), Balázs Máté (cello), Jed Wentz
(flute), Musica ad Rhenum
Recorded in 1994
My first reaction to the title "Organ Concertos"
was one of amazement, since I had always understood that the organ concerto
had been invented by Handel. When I saw that there is always at least
one other solo instrument present, I then suspected that somebody at
Brilliant had got the wrong end of the stick, interpreting the performersí
choice of an organ rather than a harpsichord as the continuo instrument
to mean it had an actual solo role. But no, the organ really does work
in duet with the violin, flute or whatever, or breaks into florid passage-work
of its own. The combination of organ and other instruments has never
been an easy one (not all that many composers have even attempted it),
and here it is effortlessly resolved by Vivaldi (and by the performers)
in concerto after concerto. I wonít even mention particular movements;
suffice to say that each concerto has unusual moments to enchant the
ear, and Vivaldiís invention is pretty consistently at its best.
But I wish we could have been told something about
these works. For one thing, a number of the pieces have stop-start moments
that suggest some sort of programme which, if it has come down to us,
is not divulged here (beyond the bare title of one concerto, "Il
Rosignuolo", with its bird trillings). For another, it would have
been interesting to know where they were originally played, and also
how authentic they are. I raise this last question since Italy was not
much of a place for organ music in Vivaldiís day. I am fairly well acquainted
with what little solo organ music there is (Zipoli, for instance) and
I am perplexed by the lack of any parallel between this highly developed
writing and the far simpler works known to me. The last concerto on
the disc, for example, has a long organ cadenza towards the end which
sounds to have been written by somebody not unacquainted with the art
of Widor. If it is the organistís improvisation in response to a cadenza-point,
perhaps we should have been told. And this is only the longest of several
such moments scattered through the disc.
The performances are lively and extremely well-phrased;
I have nothing but praise except for the Grave of RV 541. Here the organís
contribution consists of long-held chords against the violinís cantilena.
We are told what organ is used (see above) so I canít deny that there
existed in Vivaldiís own day an organ in far-off Holland with a vox
humana stop that sounds like a 1950s Hammond doing its worst, but I
do feel fairly confident in stating that no organ known to Vivaldiís
Venice would have made a noise like that. If it sets your teeth on edge
as it did mine, jump to the next track; itís not used again.
What with this vox humana and the cadenzas and the
sheerly unusual nature of the instrumental combinations, I can only
say that a scholarly note about what I was hearing would have put my
mind at rest. It would be funny, wouldnít it, if one of the most musically
interesting discs of the set turned out to be a hoax.
Concertos for Diverse Instruments: Concerto in
G for strings Ė "Alla rustica", Concerto in G minor for cello
and strings, Concerto in D for flute and strings Ė "Il Cardellino",
Concerto in C for two flutes and strings, Concerto in G minor for violin
and strings, Concerto in D for flute, violin, cello and basso continuo,
Concerto in D for flute, violin, cello and bass continuo*
Jed Wentz, Marion
Moonem (flutes), Manfred Kraemer (violin), Balász Máté
(cello), Musica ad Rhenum * Ensemble Florilegium: Ashley Solomon (flute),
Rachel Podger (violin), Daniel Yeadon (cello, Neal Peres da Costa (harpsichord)
Recorded in 1993
A mixed diet of solo instruments is surely the best
way to appreciate Vivaldiís work, and Musica ad Rhenum confirm the impression
of the previous CD that they are an extremely fine group. The low pitch
reveals them to be using original instruments Ė I couldnít quite make
up my mind in the organ concerto disc, where tuning was dictated by
the organ itself anyway. This all points to the fact that the difference
between original instruments well played and modern instruments played
with stylistic awareness is remarkably small, especially when this group
goes in for a lot of dynamic shading and detailed phrasing of the kind
that the period groups of the 1970s rejected as romantic. Their swift
movements are irrepressibly joyful while the slower ones are resolved
with a "galante" elegance. I did wonder if the proto-romantic
Vivaldi might not have been allowed to emerge from some of these, but
given their viewpoint they are convincingly done.
The last concerto on the disc is played by a different
ensemble, but one with remarkably similar basic ideals. The original
instruments are allowed to rasp just a little more (or is that the recording?)
and their very fast Allegros are sometimes on the verge of the uncomfortable.
On the other hand, they bring to the Andante that sweetly singing quality
which I missed in the Musica ad Rhenum performances.
The concertos on this disc are all good mid-quality
Vivaldi, able to hold the attention if only the well-known "Cardellino"
stands out. The uniformly excellent sound quality of the whole set is
The sheer size of Vivaldiís production has presented
posterity with a problem which the composer himself may never have imagined.
Did he ever think, as he dashed off a concerto maybe for just a single
performance later the same day, that people would be listening to it
in three hundred yearsí time? I suspect that, if he had any thought
for posterity at all, he would have expected to be judged by those sets
of works that he took the trouble to gather up into a set with an opus
number and publish. The almost uniformly high quality of "Il cimento"
on the first two CDs tends to support the idea that there were works
he took trouble over and works he dashed off. But we canít just keep
the published ones and throw away the rest since there are good Ė and
great Ė works scattered all through his output. If only we could arrive
at a consensus as to which the good ones are. Iíve shown which are the
ones I enjoyed most, but your choice may be different, and so may my
own if I listen to it all again in a couple of yearsí time. I canít
see a way round this one.
Recommended, then to all those who want 8 CDs of Vivaldi
concertos. And a particular recommendation to the agricultural community,
for experiments have shown that baroque music has a beneficial effect
on cowsí milk yields and at least this will give them a bit of variety.
I should hate to think of the poor animals cooped up in their stalls
listening to The Four Seasons all day every day. More seriously, though,
you may take this for your basic Vivaldi concerto collection, but donít
make it your basic Vivaldi. His sacred music, while still uneven, is
what reveals him as a truly great composer.