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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Five Violin Concertos:
Concerto in D major for violin, strings and basso continuo Il Grosso Mogul, RV208 [13:01]
Concerto in B minor for four violins and cello, RV580a [08:55]
Concerto in C major for violin, strings and basso continuo, RV187 [11:45]
Concerto in D major for violin, strings and basso continuo, L'Inquietudine, RV234 [06:18]
Concert in E minor for violin, strings and basso continuo, Il Favorito, RV277 [12:58]
Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
Stefano Barneschi (violin)a
Marco Bianchi (violin)a
Riccardo Masahide Minasi (violin)a
Marco Testori (cello)a
rec. Pieve di Palazzo Pignano, Cremona, Italy, 6-9 June 2004. DDD
ONYX 4001 [53:06]
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The independent designer label Onyx was recently launched with recordings from renowned performers; soprano Barbara Bonney, the Borodin String Quartet, pianist Pascal Rogé and violinist Viktoria Mullova. The notion of starting a privately funded record label in today’s highly competitive and contracting classical music industry would seem at first sight to have the same potential for success as arranging package tours to war-torn Baghdad. However, if all the releases are as excellent as this then Onyx deserve every success.

Viktoria Mullova, the internationally acclaimed Russian-born virtuoso violinist studied in Moscow at the Central Music School and at the Conservatoire. Her extraordinary talent gained international attention when she won first prize at the 1980 Sibelius Competition in Helsinki and then carried off the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982. The following year she defected from the Soviet Union in a headline-grabbing incident that involved her then-boyfriend. He was an obscure conductor who masqueraded as her piano accompanist on a foreign tour that culminated in a confused fourth of July weekend as the couple remained in hiding, waiting for the American Embassy in Sweden to open the following Monday and claim political asylum. Since then, she has appeared with most of the world’s greatest orchestras, at the major international festivals and has released a substantial number of recordings.

Mullova has developed a tremendous passion for the baroque repertoire. Her period-instrument approach has been nurtured in performances throughout the world with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Italian based ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. I have a recording of the talented Mullova performing and also directing a wonderful recording on period-instruments in 2002 of Mozart Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on Philips 470 292-2. Although it received a mixed critical reception, Mullova’s Mozart left a huge impression on me and her amazing playing still at certain points makes the hairs stick up on the back on my neck.

Il Giardino Armonico are one of several outstanding specialist period instrument ensembles that have come to prominence at the cutting-edge of the late-baroque scene in the last ten or so years. They have played their part in enhancing levels of technical proficiency and interpretation. The pioneering interpretations of Vivaldi and late-baroque music using period-instruments were dictated by the severe limitations of the instruments. These must have felt so confining to the players; as if they were all wearing strait-jackets. Consequently the performance style often came across as technically mechanical, rather lacklustre, frequently insipid and even sterile. These days these ‘new kids on the block’ explore and exploit the strength of their period instruments rather than being restricted by the weaknesses.

Mullova here plays her cherished ‘Jules Falk’ 1723 Stradivarius. She uses gut strings with a baroque bow to achieve a closeness to Vivaldi’s period and style of performance. Mullova reports that her transition from using metal to gut strings is now second nature. Interestingly and perhaps more surprisingly she finds the use of the baroque bow far more significant, which, she says, alters the quality of sound produced more dramatically than anything else. Currently Mullova does not generally research historical sources as a means of justifying her interpretations. She attempts to be as faithful as possible to the score in matters of ornamentation and phrasing.

Three of the five Vivaldi concertos on this release have been given descriptive titles which Mullova considers useful as identifying labels but not as crucial to the interpretation of the music. Often the titles only indicate the general atmosphere of the score rather than a strict programmatic intention such as in "The Four Seasons". Mullova maintains that the real challenge is to get to the heart of the music, the need for the ensemble to ‘breathe together’ through the musical phrases. We are told that this process takes her several days of rehearsal, by the end of which the ensemble is truly unified in expression.

The title of the Concerto in D major for violin, strings and basso continuo Il Grosso Mogul, RV208 alludes to the Indian court of the Grand Mughal, Akbar, whose reign saw the growth of the Mughal Empire. Mullova’s rock-solid technique easily handles the considerable demands on her dexterity and she is particularly impressive in the scintillating and exceptional cadenzas.

J.S. Bach was so impressed by Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for four violins and cello, RV580 that he transcribed it to produce his Concerto for four harpsichords in A minor, BWV 1065. It is part of the L’estro armonico set published in 1711 which represented a turning point in Vivaldi’s style and introduced a more individualistic approach and a greater distinction between solo and accompaniment. Mullova provides significant lyricism and ample colour in this highly persuasive interpretation.

The untitled Concerto in C major for violin, strings and basso continuo, RV187 is one of the less glamorous works in Vivaldi’s catalogue. The opening allegro is one of joie de vivre and the central largo is notable for the melancholic violin line. The work concludes with an allegro that blends the high spirits of the first with the darker aspects of the slow movement. The technical difficulties of double-stopping, sustained notes that demand accurate intonation and dextrous flourishes present little problem to the gifted Mullova. Her execution of the score is admirably rhythmic and precise.

The Concerto in D major for violin, strings and basso continuo "L'Inquietudine", RV234, meaning ‘restlessness’, is a work of terse brevity. Particularly significant are the palpitating texture of the strings, the boisterous tuttis and the smooth lines of the solo part. The soloist presents a calming influence in the central largo. In the final movement the solo violin seems to have succumbed to the general unrest, yet with phenomenal agility takes the necessary control. Mullova plays the movement exquisitely with plenty of fluency and vivacity.

The Concerto in E minor for violin, strings and basso continuo, Il Favorito, RV277 was one of a set of six that Vivaldi presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI; the set was later published as Vivaldi’s Op. 11 of which Il Favorito is the second in the set. The opening allegro has an imposing grandeur that shows Vivaldi’s capacity for musical drama. The central andante exudes an almost wistful lyricism and the dotted rhythms of the closing movement seem to foreshadow the final allegro from the Violin concerto in F major Autumn, RV 293 from The Four Seasons. The title which was appended after the work had been composed is suggestive of the brilliance of the solo violin part. There’s thoughtful playing from Mullova with fluency and an abundance of vivacity.

The partnership of Mullova and Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini have played this repertoire together many times. They appear to be constantly striving for fresh insights and for musical spontaneity. Mullova’s performance in these Vivaldi concertos demonstrates that she has reached a supreme solidarity with Il Giardino Armonico. Her flawless and cool playing can oscillate effortlessly from exhilarating and formidable to sensitive and emotional, yet constantly remaining polished and controlled. These are intensely committed, expressive and exhilarating accounts performed with extraordinary precision, exceptional tone and rock-steady technique.

Not surprisingly the superb and imperturbable Mullova’s expressive and precise period-instrument playing differs in style from the two top-ranked baroque specialists. Giuliano Carmignola’s lyrically orientated playing is as stylish as his fine Romeo Gigli suits. It is expertly blended with that trademark panache. Then there’s the thrilling playing of Fabio Biondi with his propensity for incredible energy and amazing virtuoso pyrotechnics combined with a wonderful facility for instrumental colour. It is good to see that these leading period-instrument specialist have been able to develop a diversity of individual styles. This variety can only enhance the pleasure of the listener.

As if we needed confirmation these performances marvellously demonstrate Vivaldi’s genius for richness of orchestral palette, musical invention and poetic energy. This is a vital recording of high quality Vivaldi concertos combined with Mullova’s stunning performances in a clear natural acoustic.

Vivaldi, Mullova and Onyx are a winning combination.

Michael Cookson

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