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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons from Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione
Opus 8: (1725)
Concerto No. 1 in E, ‘La primavera’ RV 269 [10:40]
Concerto No. 2 in G minor, ‘L’estate’ RV 315 [10:42]
Concerto No. 3 in F, ‘L’autunno’ RV 293 [11:33]
Concerto No. 4 in F minor, ‘L’inverno’ RV 297 [9:14]
Concerto in G minor, Op.12 No.1 RV 317 [11:26]
Sarah Chang (violin)
Orpheus Chamber Ensemble
rec. 21, 23-24 May 2007, SUNY Purchase College, New York. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 3 94431 2 [54:04]


It is the duty of every music scribe to contribute to the common good by writing at least one review of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, lest we reviewers should vanish as a breed. I imagine us crushed under a creaking mountain of jewel cases to the sound of ‘that’ opening theme from Spring mixed in with the manic laughter of a million marketing departments.

Scenes from a potential new screenplay by Terry Gilliam aside, there has to be a reason there are so many recordings of these concerti on the market, and the main explanation is that they’re so damn good. Aside from their ease of categorisation and association, and their neat completeness as a set, there are relatively few concerti from this period which can boast quite the range of invention, pioneering pictorial programme and instrumental synergy as these works. Yes, of course there are plenty of individual concertos and sonatas by a variety of composers which have these qualities, but as a hot package, the Four Seasons is hard to beat.

I receive all of my review discs at my work address at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, and, attempting to give my colleagues in the office a quick burst of Vivaldi over my computer’s rather nice active speakers and a ‘guess the violinist’ game to start the day, I was instead shown a pop-up window asking me if I wanted to subscribe to the EMI/Virgin classics club. There’s a small ‘Opendisc’ logo on the back of this release which tells you about this, and it turns out to be quite good fun, with easily accessed samplers of recent releases, previews of new releases, photos and the like. I found it interesting to be able to hear a few tracks of EMI CDs I’ve read about on MusicWeb International and elsewhere, and at least to be able to get some idea on what all the fuss is about. This may not be much of a selling point, but it’s worth a mention, especially since there are even ways to ‘connect’ with favourite musicians through a sort of ‘ask the artist’ option.

Out of the versions of this piece which have succumbed to house moves, emergency gift trawls and moments of weakness as a lender, I still have the excellent solo of Michel Schwalbé with the now rather overblown sounding Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan from 1972 – probably now kept for nostalgia reasons than anything else. There is the somewhat lacklustre Viktoria Mullova with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Claudio Abbado on 1987 Philips. Then there is the still remarkable Simon Standage and The English Concert led by Trevor Pinnock on 1982 Archiv, at a total of 37:54 beating even Janine Jansen on Decca for high-priced brevity. Perhaps a more useful comparison might be another version with the famously conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Gil Shaham on DG from 1994. This version sometimes uses organ as continuo, which can have the effect of taming the jangle of harpsichord against strings, but in the end as long as the balance is correct this makes very little difference. Looking at the line-up of players in the orchestra also shows very little common ground, so I’m just as inclined to take Sarah Chang on her own terms as subject her to A/B scrutiny.

Set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic, the neither the orchestra or soloist are too ‘in your face’ with this new recording, although Chang’s violin does seem to get slightly different acoustic treatment to the orchestra, giving the impression of the soloist standing significantly in front of the orchestra, though without masking it. The balance doesn’t seem at all ‘hyped’ in terms of extra bass oomph or extravagantly wide stereo, but there is of course a huge range in terms of dynamics.

The performances are very nice – lively and rhythmic where the music demands, atmospheric in those gorgeous central slow movements. The tendency is towards well articulated legato rather than overly picky phrasing, although there is plenty of space at moments such as the introduction of ‘Spring’, and the end of that movement is very impressive indeed. Chang’s playing is unmannered – possibly even a tad unadventurous in some places where you might expect more bravura, but she does however give some impassioned moments. She doesn’t go in for experimental weirdness á là Nigel Kennedy, but does pare down her vibrato almost to zero in the Adagio e piano of ‘Spring’ – allowing some slight portamenti in places as well. The final Presto of this concerto is particularly dramatic, with hairpin dynamics which roll like ocean waves.

The sonnets associated with these concerti are printed in full in the booklet, in Italian, English, French and German. Chang says “The sonnets are crucial to the concertos – one can’t go without the other… These ideas are integrated into the way I play The Four Seasons.” She certainly goes a long way towards a kind of pictorial ideal, though I’m always dubious of the power of suggestion when it comes to some aspects of associating words with music. There are no great secrets revealed here, but where special musical effects are invited then they come across well in this version. The biting chill of ‘Winter’ is the most successful for me in these terms, with an edgy accompaniment and plenty of ‘brrr’ in the solo part. The largo of this concerto has to have plenty of swing to my mind, and it certainly moves nicely here, with some gentle rubati making it less mechanical than some other versions – even to the extent of making it seem a little slower towards the end than at the beginning. Dramatic impact is once again strong in the final Allegro – this combination certainly leaves you wanting more!

There are no programme notes providing further information on the Seasons or the filler, but this is really a showcase for Sarah Chang – pictorially presented through the booklet in a variety of dresses and backgrounds representing each season: and no wonder ‘Winter’ sounds so chilly. The Concerto in G minor RV 317 is pleasant enough, but if anything serves to show the Four Seasons up as even stronger by comparison – I would have welcomed a little more imagination with the time left on this disc.

As entertainment, this Four Seasons is high grade indeed, and certainly overtakes any of the other modern instrument versions I know – although I will admit to knowing only a fraction of those available. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra seems to have matured after quite a long gap away from the recording studio, seeming ready for a renaissance and sounding more convincing now than some of those earlier DG issues. I suspect that, once having taken the plunge, this is a version of The Four Seasons which will grow on you with further listening. It certainly lacks gimmicks, sentimental gush or over indulgent artistic pretension, and as such can be warmly welcomed.

Dominy Clements                                    


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