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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons - concertos for violin, strings and basso continuo Op. 8, Nos 1-4 from Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (1725)
Concerto in E major Op.8/1 RV 269 ‘La primavera’ [9:43]
Concert in G minor Op.8/2 RV 315 ‘L’estate’ [10:48]
Concerto in F major Op.8/3 RV 293 ‘L’autunno’ [10:59]
Concerto in F minor Op.8/4 RV 297 ‘L’inverno’ [8:50]
Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)
Concerto Grosso No.4 in F major (pub.1726-27) [9:03]
Concerto Grosso No.12 in D minor (pub. 1726-27) [10:00]
Christina Day Martinson (violin)
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, 19-20 May 2008
TELARC CD-80698 [59:26]
Experience Classicsonline

I quite liked the Boston Baroque recordings of Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op.6, and even though I ended up preferring Martin Gester’s recordings of these works on BIS I was intrigued enough to find out what the Boston players would make of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
 
As with the results from the aforementioned Handel comparison, this Four Seasons is a gentler ride than the wild and energetic Vivaldi recordings by Accademia Bizantina led by Ottavio Dantone on the Arts label – comparing like with period instrument like. Martin Pearlman’s strengths are in lightness and transparency of touch rather than way-out experimental characterisations, extremes of dynamic or deep string-digging. The strings are supported by a discreetly placed theorbo, and a harpsichord which adds rhythm and texture where required. This is all as it should be, but, there being about 9 million recordings of this set of concertos on the market at any one time, there just has to be something which makes this stand out from the crowd – even if only just a little.
 
Martin Pearlman writes on the subject of ornamentation in his booklet notes, and this is clearly the angle or hook which is intended to make this recording a bit different. Indeed, he admits the quantity of available recordings as a primary problem when introducing a new version of this work, though adds that one should avoid being “arbitrarily or self-consciously ‘different.’” He continues, “oddly, the slow movements of The Four Seasons are generally played with no ornamentation at all, or with just a few added notes.” Christina Day Martinson is a wonderful soloist, and I enjoy her character-filled and technically superb playing in this recording a great deal. The first time I started listening to these slow movements however, I couldn’t help some gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
 
I’ve become a little more used to it now, and have had a day or two to get over myself, but even after having made preparations by pouring a nice glass of wine I’m still in difficulties with this. I’m not dogmatic about any points on this subject and would defend anyone’s right to ornament in whichever way they thought fit – if it expressed what they wanted to communicate in the music. There is however already a feeling here that Martinson is pushing the ornamentation in these slow movements for its own sake. Once upon a time I was told that, in the main, ornamentation was the domain of the repeat: you play the first statement or section reasonably straight, keeping the melodic shapes indicated by the composer pretty much intact. With this first version stored in memory, the repetition can be varied according to the skill and taste of the performer. The Largo of La Primavera is actually not a bad example of this, and with only a few bars in which to get cooking Martinson actually allows the initial bars of the melody to get away more or less unscathed, bringing out some skilfully executed runs and turns later on in the first section, but leaving herself with little room to expand much more later on. Still, as I say, in a two and a half minute piece you have to take your turns where you can. L’Estate is a different case, and if you didn’t know the original melody of the Adagio before hearing this version I would defy anyone to whistle it for me after this performance. The Adagio of L’autunno has no violin solo and is left intact, other than for a nicely understated but rather unimaginative harpsichord contribution from Martin Pearlman. Martinson is messing around too early once again in the favourite Largo of L’inverno, distorting the line after about 13 seconds and setting one’s teeth off once again. The movement also lacks that jazzy bounce which is my preference, but you can’t have everything.
 
O.K., this is my personal response to the USP of this recording, and there are objective arguments which mitigate in defence of this version of the Four Seasons. For a start, we’ve become so used to a ‘standard’ version of these pieces that any messing around beyond a certain point becomes an affront to our expectations. I take this fully on board, but listening to Stefano Montanari’s playing on the Arts label version linked above, I find my remark about the ‘ornament on the repeat’ rule vindicated in the main. Where he ornaments, the shape of the melodies remain relatively undistorted – it is the space between the notes, the points of lower tension in the melody or the phrase which receive some moments of extra attention, keeping everything floating and in motion through time, rather than attracting attention to technique in particular, or introducing variation for variation’s sake. The second argument you will find neatly hidden in the Geminiani Concerto grosso No.4 later on in the disc, and I will deal with that when we come to it.        
 
Elswhere everything is fine and dandy in this recording. There are some lovely moments, with the stormy summer handled with a nice antiphonal touch, violins left and right on the recording. The opening of L’inverno is a real brrrr, and chunky accompaniment provides a feisty backdrop for the soloist in the la caccia last movement of L’autunno, though the last notes of some of the solo phrases are a bit forced. The final movement of L’inverno has some dramatic and unexpected rubati, but this seems to fit somehow. There are some gorgeous moments in the solo violin as well, with Christina Day Martinson’s sometimes surprisingly big tone sliding with a cheeky portamento here, a gritty passage close to the bridge there. Her playing is witty and expressive, far more so than some other high profile recordings I could mention, so I find it a bit of a shame that the approach to the slow movements had to be quite so wedded to this ornamentation gimmick. Despite myself, I do like this recording of The Four Seasons. All moans aside, it has good pacing and some excellent playing, but I’m afraid it has forever lost its chance to become a desert island choice.
 
Moving on to the fillers, Francisco Geminiani’s Concerti Grossi here are from a set based on Corelli’s Op.5 violin sonatas. Geminiani shares a pedigree as virtuoso violinist with Vivaldi and they were of course contemporaries. The Concerto grosso No.4 in F major is a fine piece, but is pretty standard fare and doesn’t really compete with the Vivaldi for interest.  Here, the ornamentation for the slow movements comes from the first printed edition of Corelli’s sonatas, of which a fully written out ornamented version exists. Ah, I hear you say, but Corelli’s own written solo part starts ornamenting right from the outset, so should you not be eating humble pie at this point? Maybe, but to be fair this is a sonata shoehorned into a concerto context, so as far as I’m concerned all bets are off, and besides, Corelli’s written ornaments seem to do a better job of preserving the essential melodic line and leaving well alone where necessary than some – some, not all – of the improvised musings in the Vivaldi. The ‘hit’ here is of course the ever popular ‘Variations on La Follia’ which is the Concerto Grosso No.12 in D minor. This receives a decent performance here, though I have heard it done with a defter touch. It’s all a bit four-square, and doesn’t really get my pulse going – certainly not to the extent of wanting to get up and dance.
 
With so many Four Seasons’ out there this CD is always going to have a hard time making much headway into the bestseller list. This is a shame in many ways, since the Boston Baroque ensemble’s playing is honest and essentially very fine. I like almost all of Christina Day Martinson’s excellent solo violin playing, and most of the performing decisions she and Martin Pearlman make. Unfortunately I can’t make a case for exceptional recommendation based on a ‘unique’ aspect of the performance which I like the least. Fans of this ensemble need not fear disappointment however, and Telarc’s impressive engineering credentials are well represented in this recording, so keep an open mind and have a listen if you can get the chance – you might find yourself sold after all.
 
Dominy Clements
 
    

 


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