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Antonio VIVALDI (1678–1741)
L’Estro Armonico, Op. three (1711) [99.28]
Stefano Montanari (violin)
Fiorenza De Donatis (violin)
Paolo Zinzani (violin)
Laura Mirri (violin)
Accademia Ziantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. Sala del Refettorio, Museo di San Vitale, Ravenna, March 2001
only available separately
ARTS 47646-8 SACD Concertos 1-6 [45.26]
ARTS 47647-8 SACD Concertos 7-12 [54.02]

It was the publication of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico in 1711 which contributed greatly to Vivaldi’s European reputation. Previous publications had been printed in Venice with poor technical print quality. But for the 1711 publication Vivaldi had the works printed in Amsterdam, where the quality of printing was higher.

But it wasn’t just the improved technical quality of the printing itself which brought Vivaldi to the notice of his fellow composers. The twelve concertos in the collection have an appealing formal clarity. More than that, though, they introduce what we now think of as the Vivaldi sound. The work’s title can be roughly interpreted as "harmonic fire" and this aptly describes the works’ effects on the listener. He mixes energy, rhythmic buoyancy and motor propulsion, with melodic felicity and lyricism. Granted, his harmonic effects can seem a little schematic today but there is no doubt that they are thrilling in execution. Like Handel, Vivaldi was adept at creating effects from little. In this set he does include an occasional fugue to show his academic credentials, but he is just as at home in providing a far simpler context for the virtuoso solo line.

The set of twelve concertos are laid out in four groups of three, each group consisting of one concerto for four violins, one concerto for two violins and one concerto for violin solo. Instrumentally the pieces are varied, with a concertante cello part cropping up in places and with two viola parts.

The concertos work well when performed with small forces and on this disc the Accademia Bizantina uses just six violins and draws the soloists from this pool of players. There are a number of modern instrument performances available and anyone looking for a luxurious beauty of string tone should look elsewhere.

Ottavio Dantone and his forces give crisp, lively performances, full of rhythmic propulsion. Dantone seems to prize crispness and articulation over sheer beauty of string tone. Vibrato seems to have been banished almost entirely, even as a decoration. The results are impressive and enthralling; they rather carry you away with their intensity; though I can imagine some listeners finding the performances a little hard driven. Mind you, the players can relax in the slower movements and turn in some playing notable for its sheer beauty, within the parameters set by the performance style.

At first sight the playing has a wonderfully plangent tone, with the soloists beautifully well balanced. All four players are equally virtuosic and the group manages the difficult feat of balancing all four solo lines in the four-part concertos so that the works do sound like concerti grossi, albeit bravura ones. These works in particular receive infectiously toe-tapping performances. Stefano Montanari plays in all the concertos and is joined by Fiorenza De Donatis in the double concertos.

Only on repeated listening did I wonder about the lack of softness in the playing; it all seems to have a rather hard edge; there is élan aplenty but something of a lack of tonal warmth.

The playing has that sort of intensity which has arisen in Italian groups as a sort of counter to the whiter English sound of the earlier years of the authentic movement. But if you turn to the Academy of Ancient Music’s recording dating from the 1980s, then Christopher Hogwood uses just one instrument to a part with the whole performance having a lightness of texture lacking in this newer disc. On the plus side of course, the soloists on the Accademia Bizantina’s recording have the benefit of some twenty years or more of developments in the art of playing this type of music in period style; so that technically these performances are brilliant.

Regarding the continuo, Dantone mixes harpsichord, chamber organ, archlute and baroque guitar, making an appealing array of textures which vary during the performances. It is in this area where Dantone does seem to be introducing a welcome element of fantasy.

The concertos are split between two discs, available separately; so that you don’t have to invest in the entire set. The concertos are split uniformly between the discs, with concertos one to six on disc one and concertos 7 to 12 on disc 2.

These performances will not appeal to everyone, but I found their sheer brilliance and rhythmic impetus rather attractive. Perhaps you would not want this as your only set, but it is a very welcome release nonetheless.

Robert Hugill




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