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Antonio VIVALDI (1678–1741)
Sonata ‘Graz’ (No. 3) for violin and continuo in D, RV 11 [12:28]
Cantata Tremori al braccio, RV 799 [13:28]
Sonata for violin, cello and continuo in D, RV 83 [8:57]
Cantata Elvira, Anima mea, RV 654 [10:58]
Sonata ‘Graz’ (No. 2) for violin and continuo in B minor, RV 37 [12:05]
Cantata Lungi dal vago volto, RV 680 [16:41]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano)
La Serenissima/Adrian Chandler
rec. St. Andrews Church, Toddington, 27-29 March 2006


Vivaldi’s cantatas for soprano or alto and instrumental ensemble are still a rather neglected area of his output. Around forty of them survive and deserve further investigation. Some twelve of them are the survivors from a group of cantatas that Vivaldi wrote for the Mantuan court. Vivaldi’s operatic success in Venice between 1714 and 1718 had attracted the attention of Mantua’s ruler, Landgrave Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Vivaldi wrote his operas Teuzzone and Tito Manlio for his new patron and the court’s aristocratic inner circle were the recipients of Vivaldi’s Mantuan cantatas. The cantatas use the pseudonyms popular amongst the aristocratic Arcadian communities of the period, where the educated nobility got together and wrote poetry under the names of Arcadian shepherds.

On this new disc, Mhairi Lawson and La Serenissima give us three of these cantatas. All three refer to the nymph Elvira. In Tremori al braccio Elvira’s lover, Fileno, trembles at his inability to confess his love to Elvira, only overcoming his reticence in the finale. This trembling enables Vivaldi to introduce some picturesque instrumental descriptions. In the second cantata, Elvira, Anima mea, Fileno tells Elvira that he must leave for a while and begs for one last kiss. In the final cantata, Lungi dal vogo volto, the returning Fileno sees Elvira in the distance, finally reaching her to bring the cantata to a happy conclusion.

La Serenissima, under their director Adrian Chandler, intersperse these cantatas with three of Vivaldi’s instrumental sonatas. His Graz sonatas are so-called because the manuscript is housed in the Diozesanarchiv Graz. The Graz manuscript is lacking in a bass part and so the sonatas are not well known, though three survive elsewhere in slightly different forms. Sonatas 2 and 3 do not survive in any other sources, so Adrian Chandler has reconstructed the missing bass parts and they are performed here. The Graz sonatas seem to have been written in the period 1716-1720, around the time the Elvira cantatas were written, so they make an ideal pairing.

The remaining instrumental item on the disc is Vivaldi’s sole surviving sonata for violin and obbligato cello. Vivaldi used this combination in concertos and this work uses a three-movement concerto layout rather than a four movement sonata format.

The resulting mixture of works provides a resoundingly satisfying programme, helped by vivid performances from Mhairi Lawson and La Serenissima.

In recent years, performance practice in Italian baroque music has been much influenced by the vividly dramatic concert realisations from the burgeoning Italian HIP scene. Often seen as more inflected and passionate than the typically cool and perfect English period performance, the Italian groups have developed a lively and intense style which fits well with Vivaldi’s music.

It is into this group that La Serenissima seems to fit, providing crisp dramatic music-making that reflect the vividness of the music. Adrian Chandler’s solos are involving and lively, whilst never compromising on the technical side. But these performances are not about technique, but using technique to further the drama of the music.

Mhairi Lawson’s performances are on a par stylistically. She responds to every nuance of the drama and produces a wonderful kaleidoscope of vocal styles and colours to inflect the words and music. The results, which in lesser hands could sound mannered, are very vivid and taking. Not everyone will like the rather breathy cooing tone that she sometimes adopts. But no-one can doubt the aplomb with which she sings this music nor the vividness that she brings to the drama.

Lawson is of course a natural stage creature, but whilst these performances are dramatic she stays successfully within the chamber nature of the pieces. You never feel that she is desperately trying to break out, as can happen in some performances.

My only real criticism is that Lawson’s voice seems to have been recorded in such a way that it suffers a little from harshness and glare in the upper register. The problem is not over-troubling and I can vouch for the fact that, in the flesh, Lawson suffers from none of these problems. So it is a shame that a slightly more flattering recording could not have been created. 

This is an appealing selection of rarely performed Vivaldi works, given in lively and vivid performances that bring out the works’ appeal. The disc is definitely high on my list of recommendations for this year.

Robert Hugill


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