Now I must confess
when this recording plopped on the letter-box floor my heart
sank. “Not another Vivaldi Four Seasons!”, I moaned.
However, somewhere or other I had read a quite promising review
of the disc, so I set to work, score in hand, trying to find
what it is about this performance that made Naxos happy to
commit another ‘Four Seasons’ to their catalogue.
Coward as I am,
I started with the fifth and sixth concertos, not any of the
famous Seasons. The fifth concerto is entitled ‘La
Tempesta di Mare’ and I had the thrill of hearing this
live in Venice not that long ago as given by the group ‘La
Stravaganza’. This was real of the ‘edge of seat’ material,
helped by the brittle church acoustic. To get some idea of
their approach you could do no worse than listen to their collection
of the Op. 4 Concertos with Rachel Podger (Channel Classics
CCS 19598 - see review), exciting stuff and this disc was a
big success story of 2003.
Sejong was founded in 1995 and is based
in New York. They are a group consisting of sixteen musicians
plus harpsichord. My immediate reaction to their interpretation
was one of much disappointment due to their lack of bite, attack
and power; this despite a fairly clear and ‘up-front’ recording.
Then I read the biographical notes which say that it is “known
for its cohesiveness, beautiful sound and refreshing musical
style”. The emphasis on beautiful sound should be noted. And
perhaps it is achieved at the expense of drama. They are on
safer ground with the C major concerto ‘Il piacere’ (The
Pleasure) which is number six in the set. It is a rather
anonymous piece but is here played with elegance.
I then turned to
the ‘Four Seasons’ themselves. For any music, baroque
and earlier, we should be told in the CD booklet the edition
used by the performers along with the recording venue. It is
one of my bêtes noires that this is still very rare
so can I plead for it again. Surely it’s not that hard
to achieve. I have my fairly standard EMB study score to hand
which is fine for all performances I have ever heard before.
Obviously ornamentation of the violin line is up to the soloist
although some are suggested, and dynamics are indicated where
Vivaldi indicated them. With this Sejong version we have some
curious discrepancies. For example in Spring bar 45
there should be just two of the rising and startling demi-semi-quaver
scale passages; Sejong play four. In Winter, movement
two, the Largo, they add an inner texture of repeated
demi-semi-quavers. This has the effect of giving the movement
forward propulsion instead of the often rather slow and sometimes
romantic tempo chosen by many performers. In general their
middle movements are much faster than usual as in the case
with Autumn when the repeated viola rhythm, imitating
a barking dog, can often seem rather dull. Even so, and call
me a purist if you wish, there are some liberties which I feel
should not be taken with any score.
I do not however want to take away from
the fact that there is some good, clean
playing and some very enjoyable solo
and ensemble work here, with excellent
attention to dynamic contrast. Cho-Liang
Lin does not miss a trick and his passage-work
is exemplary as is his phrasing and
balance with the ensemble aided by the
recording. Especially enjoyable for
its freedom balanced with attention
to detail is the first movement of Autumn
and the finale of Winter.
Nothing is smudged and the ornamentation
So, can I recommend
that you add this CD to your shelves which probably holds at
least one Four Seasons anyway. Of course I have some
reservations and I find it difficult to leave aside versions
like The Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields on Argo and the
Virtuosi of England on EMI or even I Musici on Philips, my
favourites from the past but unadorned and well balanced, not
overly-dramatic but crisp and strong. So I leave it up to you.
At least at Naxos price it will not make a particularly big
hole in your budget.