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Early Music

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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons (1720)
Concerto No.1 La primavera (Spring) RV 269 [9:35]
Concerto No.2 L'estate (Summer) RV 315 [10:08]
Concerto No.3 L'autunno (Autumn) RV 293 [10:56]
Concerto No.4 L'inverno (Winter) RV 297 [7:41]
Janine Jansen {solo violin}
Candida Thompson (violin 1), Henk Rubingh (violin 2), Julian Rachlin (viola), Maarten Jansen (cello), Stacey Watton (double bass), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo); Jan Jansen (organ/harsichord)
Recorded Yakult Zaal, Beurs Van Berlage Concert and Congerszalen, Amsterdam, May 2004
SACD Surround, SACD Stereo, CD Audio
DECCA 475 6188 [36.06]

 

Here is a distinguished young Dutch violinist, already much respected for her performances of a wide range of works, making a bid in the lucrative pop classics market. You can tell that from the combination of the cover of the CD and the musical content. This is not the wet T shirt approach but a more expensive sophisticated one that plays on Ms Jansen's voluptuous looks. As you can see from the cover, she lounges - soft focused and back lit - in a valuable looking piece of furniture (a Louis Quinze antique perhaps? - I'm no expert) swathed in yards of delicately patterned diaphanous material nonchalantly dangling a violin from two fingers over the side of the chair. If this is a Stradivarius (she does own one) then it's, (a) a lot more valuable than the chair and, (b) a risky manoeuvre.

She and Decca are presumably hoping to emulate Nigel Kennedy whose Four Seasons recording of nearly twenty years ago gained an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest selling classical recording of all time. Kennedy had, shortly before, committed to disc, two of the greatest performances of the Elgar and Tchaikovsky concertos ever recorded. His Four Seasons was widely held by critics to be one of the worst recordings of the work ever made. The obvious moral here is that you do not need to satisfy the critics with a quality performance that respects Vivaldi's original in order to achieve smash hit status.

So it is largely down to marketing. But what of the performance? On seeing the cover of the disc and before playing it, a friend said, "I hope she sounds as good as she looks". Well she does play very well, but not as she looks. This is not voluptuous solo playing but a clean, virtuosic, spirited rendering low on vibrato. Not only is she prettier than Nigel Kennedy - at least I think so - but she plays better in this work. It suggests that with suitable accompanying forces and a sensible, unified approach to interpretation and recorded sound, she could take part in a very fine performance indeed, one that may satisfy the most demanding critics. Overall though, this is being sold on gimmickry. First of all, Vivaldi's string orchestra is reduced to one player per part. Jansen says in the booklet that she had already tried the approach with Bach and "found it worked extremely well. So I decided to give it a go with Vivaldi". So this is not the result of recent revelatory scholarship but an idea of her own. There is not necessarily any harm in that. Vivaldi tolerated all sorts of rearrangements of this work during his lifetime. The most extreme "reduced" version was made after his death by Jean-Jacques Rousseau no less (yes - the philosopher) who arranged it for unaccompanied flute. Rousseau had shortly arrived in Venice and was thrilled to hear Vivaldi played (as it was in the composer’s time) by string bands of orphaned girls. It is pretty clear from Rousseau's Confessions that the thrill was not just musical.

Which brings me back to Ms Jansen. Her band plays with astonishing, brilliant precision and executes all the eccentric mannerisms with unity of purpose. It is perhaps not surprising it sounds so well rehearsed because this is partly a family affair. Dad is at the harpsichord and brother on the cello. They produce extremes of dynamic and tempo even within single movements, and although the string playing is clean enough as to lean towards "authenticism", much of the phrasing has a contradictory romantic exaggeration to it together with some hefty accentuation. Among specific eccentricities are the repeating pair of chords that accompany the beautiful solo line in the slow movement of the Spring concerto. These are stabbed out in such a way as intrude on the melody instead of accompanying it. In the last movement of Summer there are some pizzicato chords that make a percussive snapping sound that I at first thought might be a case of instrument abuse – a broken bow perhaps. I don’t know how they achieved the effect.

All this is enhanced by the recording engineers who must have had a brief to exploit the SACD/surround-sound technology. The bass seems to me to be artificially boosted and the general sound gets a treatment that in surround will immerse you in a way quite at odds with a chamber ambience.

One final quibble, but a serious one. This is the first disc I’ve come across for a long time where I can find no figure for the total playing time; not on the case, the disc or in the booklet. It is hardly surprising that Decca would wish to suppress the information because the disc has half the playing time of many others. Decca’s website does own up to it as a "key fact": 36.06 minutes. Some outlets are selling it at full price. The cheapest I can find is $21/£11. This can only be described as a disgrace.

Call me a stuffy purist but I cannot help thinking that if this ensemble with Janine Jansen at its head could have aimed at a performance that had more of a respect for Vivaldi’s music than an eye on a lucrative market, then a very fine, enduring result could have been achieved that would make a very convincing case for the reduced, chamber forces. I have to confess though that I was nearly seduced by it all, and that has nothing to do with the pictorial results of Ms Jansen’s photo shoot in the booklet.

John Leeman



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