> Antonio Vivaldi - The Concerto Collection [CH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

8CDs various Artists
BRILLIANT CLASSICS STEMRA 99415 [8 CDs: 67'06", 68'31", 50'43", 54'32", 53'36", 71'13", 73'43", 51'39"]


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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 Vivaldi’s 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 wouldn’t 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 you’re an out-and-out completist you might feel you’re now fixed for life as far as Vivaldi concertos are concerned. The discs come without any notes – surely a first-time buyer of "The Seasons" needs to have Vivaldi’s 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 dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione, 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 Pinnock.
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 mechanical.

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. Don’t 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 Standage’s 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 wouldn’t 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 pitch.

The two "extra" concertos are not problem-free. In the flute concerto (that’s 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 cello’s 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, I’m 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 I’m 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) won’t do. "Demonstration" is closer but sounds academic. "Apotheosis" may be overdoing it but at least renders what Vivaldi was trying to do.

CD 3

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" – chamber concertos – 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 composer’s 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 hyper-active.

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 I’m seeking a polite way of saying it’s 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 don’t 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, it’s 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 recorder’s scales shooting up like rockets.

As I say, The English Concert and Il Giardino Armonico can’t both be right, but since we don’t know which of them is right you’re going to get a lot of food for thought if you go back and forth between them. Excellent recordings.

CD 4

Recorder Concertos: C minor, RV 441, C, RV 444, F, RV 433 – "La Tempesta di Mare", C, RV 443, F, RV 434, G minor, RV 439 – "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. It’s also all very close-miked (the recorder-player’s breaths before the fast movements start are of the "I’ll-huff-and-I’ll-puff-and-I’ll-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 strings’ 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 concerto’s Allegro ma non tanto and enter fully into Vivaldi’s rich flights of pictorial imagination in "La Notte".

So all-in-all this is still a pretty good record. The players don’t make the weaker works sound any better than they are, but they don’t short-change you over the top-notch ones either.

CD 5

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 d’amore and strings, Concerto in F for bassoon and strings
Jakob Lindberg (lute), Nils-Erik Sparf, Tullo Galli (violins), Monica Huggett (viola d’amore), 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, it’s 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 hasn’t been done here. Perhaps it is asking too much, though I’d be interested to hear what Il Giardino Armonico might make of them.

CD 6

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
Daniel Smith (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 Concert’s 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 passage–work 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 I’d 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.

CD 7

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 – "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
Marcelo Bussi (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 performers’ 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 won’t even mention particular movements; suffice to say that each concerto has unusual moments to enchant the ear, and Vivaldi’s 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 Vivaldi’s 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 organist’s 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 organ’s contribution consists of long-held chords against the violin’s cantilena. We are told what organ is used (see above) so I can’t deny that there existed in Vivaldi’s 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 Vivaldi’s Venice would have made a noise like that. If it sets your teeth on edge as it did mine, jump to the next track; it’s 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, wouldn’t it, if one of the most musically interesting discs of the set turned out to be a hoax.

CD 8

Concertos for Diverse Instruments: Concerto in G for strings – "Alla rustica", Concerto in G minor for cello and strings, Concerto in D for flute and strings – "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 Vivaldi’s 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 – I couldn’t 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 confirmed here.

The sheer size of Vivaldi’s 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 years’ 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 can’t just keep the published ones and throw away the rest since there are good – and great – works scattered all through his output. If only we could arrive at a consensus as to which the good ones are. I’ve 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 years’ time. I can’t 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 cows’ 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 don’t make it your basic Vivaldi. His sacred music, while still uneven, is what reveals him as a truly great composer.

Christopher Howell

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