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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op. 8 Nos. 1-6 (1725)
La Primavera RV 269 [9.49]; L'Estate RV315 [9.58] ; L'autnno RV 293 [10.19]; L'inverno RV 297 [8.34]
La Tempesta di mare RV 253 [8.24]
'Il piacere' RV 180 [8.08]
Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Anthony Newman (harpsichord; portatif organ)
Sejong/Adel Anthony
rec. Church of the Holy Trinity, New York, 8-9 September 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557920 [55.11]

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 betes 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 is ideal.
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.
Gary Higginson


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