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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons [39:06]
Concerto in d minor for Viola d’amore [12:08]
‘La Notte’ - Concerto in g minor for flute, bassoon, strings and harpsichord [9:05]
Nils Erik Sparf, baroque violin
Monica Huggett, viola d’amore
Jakob Lindberg, lute
Clas Pehrsson, recorder
Michael McGraw, baroque bassoon
Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble
Recorded on June 7,9-11 1984 (Four Seasons) December 6-7 1984, Viola d’amore concerto, May 27/30 1984, Flute/Bassoon concerto in the Petrus Church, Stocksund, Sweden DDD
BIS CD 300275 [61:45]

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I once asked James Richman, the renowned conductor and harpsichordist, just how Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, managed to become one of the most popular and most recorded works in the canon of Western Art Music. His simple reply was that, "It is fantastic music!" Although it has been hackneyed by any number of bizarre re-orchestrations, one cannot help but agree with Mr. Richman that every new hearing of these picturesque concertos causes one to marvel at Vivaldi’s creative genius, and to dismiss the long-held saw that he was merely a prolific copier of a single piece.

Vivaldi’s works had achieved international status during his lifetime. The Four Seasons alone turned up on concert stages all over Europe while the "red priest" as he was known, toiled away producing reams of music for the girls of the Ospedale, an orphanage and school which placed a high priority on music, and whose orchestra was known throughout Italy. By the nineteenth century, he was but a footnote in the music history texts. It was not until 1926, when a huge cache of scores was found in the Collegio San Marco in the north of Italy that his genius became recognized again, and thanks to the wide dissemination of his works via recordings, his place in the pantheon of musical giants is solid and secure.

Published as the first four works in a set of twelve concerti entitled "Il cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ invenzione" (The trial of harmony and invention) in which the composer pushes the limits of standard harmonic practice, the Four Seasons stand as one of the earliest examples of program music. At their original publication, each concerto was accompanied by a Sonnet, most likely written by Vivaldi himself, describing the scenes prevalent in each of the four seasons. The wonderful barking dog in the slow movement of Spring and the shivering pedestrians depicted in Winter are but two examples of the picturesque writing that fills these works.

These performances are about as elegant and well paced as any that I have heard. Although Nils-Erik Sparf does not indulge in overt theatrics as Gil Shaham did in his recording of a few years ago, he still captures the spirit of the poetry in his playing. These recordings are now nearly twenty years old, but their perfection of intonation and balance, and their fine sense of tempo speak volumes as to the sheer quality of the soloists and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble. No screechy violins here, no blitzentempi either. The music is allowed to breathe and never seems rushed as so many other recordings of the period tend toward.

Monica Huggett turns in a warm and lovely rendition of the Concerto for viola d’amore. Again, most remarkable is the spot on intonation, and the warm lush sound that these players achieve from period instruments. La Notte is another programmatic work, and although the composer left behind no specific scene, the menacing opening and nightmarish runs and flourishes which likely depict nocturnal spirits set an apt stage. Again we have playing of the first order, with Clas Pehrsson and Michael McGraw playing and complementing each other beautifully.

BIS has long had a reputation for the highest of production values, and this disc is no exception. Excellent documentation, clear, readable and interesting program notes, flawless sound quality and beautiful packaging all go to make this a release worth having, even if it duplicates items in your library. A part of a thirty CD series commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the label, there are bound to be many delights in this effort. Specially priced, this one is not to be missed.

Kevin Sutton

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