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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Cello Concerto in G minor, RV416 (c. 1708-1711) [11.45]
Cello Concerto in A minor, RV420 (c. 1708-1711) [10.45]
Concerto for two cellos in G minor, RV531 [11.02]
Cello Concerto in C minor, RV401 (1723-29) [10.24]
Cello Concerto in G minor, RV417 (1723-29) [8.58]
Cello Concerto in A minor, RV418A (1723-29) [10.49]
Cello Concerto in G major, RV415A (attributed to Vivaldi) [9.55]
Jonathan Cohen (cello and a five-string ‘piccolo’ celloA)
Sarah McMahon (cello) (RV531)
The King’s Consort/Robert King (director; harpsichord)
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, 15-17 April 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67553 [73.40]
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Recordings of Vivaldi concertos using period-instruments have been flocking to the catalogues with regularity in recent years. The qualities of many of these recordings that employ instruments authentic to the period have been outstanding. This elevated standard continues with disc from period-instrument orchestra The King’s Consort. One of the cello concertos is a curiosity in that it may not be by Vivaldi.

Of Vivaldi’s scores that feature the cello as a solo or joint-solo instrument my latest check of his works-list revealed: 26 concertos for cello, strings and basso continuo, one for cello, bassoon, strings and basso continuo, one for two cellos, strings and basso continuo and one concerto for violin, two cellos, strings and basso continuo.

These cello concertos are certainly accomplished examples of the genre and to a large extent chart Vivaldi’s development as a composer. Of the seven here the G minor, RV416 and the A minor, RV420 belong to the earliest cello concertos that Vivaldi composed. The two scores are thought to be contemporaneous to the celebrated collection, published in 1711, as Op. 3 ‘L’estro armonico’. The G minor, RV416 and the A minor, RV420 bear the hallmarks of a Baroque sonata and make sparing use of the orchestra. The ‘primitive’ stylistic features of these scores includes a larger number of shorter sections - alternating between ‘tutti’ and ‘solo’ scoring - than in the later concertos. Their rhythmic character tends to be uniform between each movement. Their energy remains fairly raw, lacking the finer nuances, rhythmic, figurational and dynamic of the later scores.

In the view of Vivaldi biographer Michael Talbot the concertos in C minor, RV401, G minor, RV417 and A minor, RV418 belong to the heyday of Vivaldi’s concerto-composing career: the 1720s. From 1723 to 1729 Vivaldi, who was no longer an employee of the Ospedale della Pietà, in Venice, kept the institution supplied with two concertos a month under a special contract.

The Concerto for two cellos, RV531 is Vivaldi’s only true ‘double’ cello concerto. Although he did write a Concerto in C major for violin, two cellos, strings and basso continuo, RV561. The score to the G minor, RV531 was in all probability written during the 1720s for the Pietà. Michael Talbot in his liner notes claims special significance for the score, "This is a concerto to single out among the hundreds that Vivaldi wrote."

The G major, RV415 is the curiosity out of the seven concertos. For many years RV415, which came from the Schönborn-Wiesentheid collection, was attributed to Vivaldi. Peter Ryom who catalogued Vivaldi’s works appeared not to question its authenticity. However the style of the G major concerto is most uncharacteristic, beyond the most basic specifications, and many questions have arisen from Vivaldi scholars.

In the last few years the standard of period-instrument performance of Vivaldi and Baroque and Classical music in general has certainly improved by leaps and bounds. In the last decade or so a new generation of outstanding period-instrument ensembles and soloists have come to prominence at the cutting-edge of the authentic performance scene. These specialist performers are able to exploit the strengths of their period-instruments rather than being restricted by the weaknesses. They have successfully escalated the technical proficiency and interpretative standards.

Founded in 1980 by their director Robert King, The King's Consort is one of the world's most-recorded period-instrument orchestras having made over ninety recordings for Hyperion. Baroque cellist Jonathan Cohen is the principal of The King's Consort and uses a five-string ‘piccolo’ cello on RV415 and RV418 instead of the traditional four-string instrument. This facilitates the performance of ultra-high notes and of the broken chord passages in the solo part of these two concertos.

Cohen is a highly impressive soloist and his skilfully controlled playing displays a real stamp of authority, avoiding any suggestion of flashiness and superficiality. The mellow tone from his 1712 Giuseppe Guarneri ‘Filius Andrea’ Cremonese cello from the ‘golden period’ is striking. I especially enjoyed the performance from Cohen and the Consort with the jagged rhythms of the tempestuous allegro, finale of the A minor, RV420. I loved the soloist’s glorious playing in the G minor, RV417 where the central movement andante has a minuet rhythm and the cello is accompanied by the continuo alone. With their fresh and vibrant playing the Consort are in their element with the absorbing final movement allegro of RV417.

The finest work on the set is the double cello concerto in G minor, RV531. The electrifying cadenza in the highly charged opening movement allegro is played by both cellists with spirit and dramatic energy and the poignant slow movement is given an interpretation of noble dignity. The five-string ‘piccolo’ cello that Cohen utilises on RV415 and RV418, a Clive Morris copy from 1995 after H & A Amati of Cremona c.1600, is a fine instrument with a gracious timbre. The orchestral playing is first class and together with Robert Cohen their excellent performances place them beside the very best of the new generation of specialist period-instrument ensembles.

For those wanting just one recording of a selection of Vivaldi’s cello concertos I believe the finest accounts are those from Ensemble Explorations under the direction of baroque cellist Roel Dieltiens, on period-instruments, for Harmonia Mundi. The second volume in the series is crucially the one to go for; which contains: RV420, RV408, RV411, RV407, RV544, RV421 nd RV561 on HMC 901745. Recorded in 2001, in Belgium the commanding playing from Ensemble Explorations is spirited and full of personality. A sheer delight from start to finish, it is difficult to imagine better performances. In my MusicWeb review I called the release ‘Truly outstanding!’ review

This appealing Hyperion recording is warm and clear with excellent balance. The liner notes from Michael Talbot are written to a high standard which enhances the appeal.

Michael Cookson


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