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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione op. 8

Vol. I
Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione op. 8

Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269) [9:39]
Concerto in g minor, op. 8,2 'L'Estate' (RV 315) [10:11]
Concerto in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno' (RV 293) [11:02]
Concerto in f minor, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno' (RV 297) [8:20]
Concerto in E flat, op. 8,5 'La Tempesta di Mare' (RV 253) [8:12]
Concerto in C, op. 8,6 'Il Piacere' (RV 180) [8:29]
Stefano Montanari (violin)
Accademia Bizantina
Ottavio Dantone (conductor)
Rec. September 1999 at the Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
ARTS 47564-8 [57:07]
Vol. II
Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione op. 8

Concerto in d minor, op. 8,7 (RV 242)* [08:00]
Concerto in g minor, op. 8,8 (RV 332)* [09:10]
Concerto in d minor, op. 8,9 (RV 454)** [07:31]
Concerto in Bes, op. 8,10 'La Caccia' (RV 362)* [08:45]
Concerto in D, op. 8,11 (RV 210)* [11:47]
Concerto in C, op. 8,12 (RV 449)** [09:04]
Stenano Montanari (violin*)
Paolo Grazzi (oboe**)
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. September 1999, Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
ARTS 47565-8 SACD [55:42]

These two hybrid SACD discs are the ‘audiophile’ versions of recordings which have appeared in a 4 CD set including Vivaldi’s Op.3 ‘L’Estro Armonico’. Johan van Veen found the performances ‘a delight to listen to’ and ‘different’, and they certainly differ from another recent version by Sarah Chang which I recently reviewed. There is of course the ‘early music performance practise’ aspect which makes direct comparison somewhat inapplicable, but for me these performances take the descriptive elements far beyond those in Chang’s recording. They even make that old favourite Archiv 400 045-2, the English Concert with Simon Standage and Trevor Pinnock, seem rather square. In many ways they show how it should be done, and in every regard can be seen as something rather special.

The opening is a little disconcerting, the solo violin beginning with a trill on the interval of a minor second, rather than on or around a major second, which everyone else seems to have accepted as standard. The interaction of the solos and the variety of tone and colour in the accompaniment soon prove entirely absorbing however, and, there is so much subtle teasing and pictorial content – storms, and singing birds, that you wonder why you accepted anything else as even coming close. The barking dog in the second movement of Spring is gruff and persistent, and a far more audible presence than the solo line, which might have done with having a little more red blood. Stenano Montanari weaves softly above the simple string accompaniment, and builds a nice arch-form with some elegantly extemporised ornamentation. The dancing final movement is rich in emphasising the strong bas lines, and the organ and archlute reinforce and point up the drones and harmonies. In a most gentle way it ‘swingt de pan uit’ – is genuinely groovy, and if you’re sold by now, the rest can only get better.

The storms are a big favourite with the Accademia Bizantina, and Ottavio Dantone draws explosive rumbles of thunder from his band. The encroaching, first distant indications of storms approaching in the second movement of ‘Summer’ are particularly convincing, and you can sense the sweat dropping, the close air spinning with insects and livid motes. The hail is smashed out of the strings of the lute in the final movement, and the sense of chaos and ruin is palpable.

The drama continues in ‘Autumn’, with sliding strings, dragging tempi and one or two comic pauses accurately describing the effects of alcohol on your local, otherwise hard-working peasants in the first movement. The harpsichord gets a chance to shine in the second, sleepily sustained Adagio, and we are rudely awakened once more by the horns and guns of the hunters in the final Allegro, which really punches out those first beat in the bar chords, and the octaves from around 1:32 really fly like bullets – the strings brutally snagged on the bow.

‘Winter’ is full of exciting effects, and with the opening Allegro non molto the influences on a piece like Michael Nyman’s Memorial are starkly apparent. The bows bouncing on strings from 2:30 in a rustling quasi col legno effect is particularly marvellous. Fans of ‘the bubble’ kind of beat will love the second movement, with its driving basses moving everything along with tight octaves, punctuated with unrestrained pizzicato in the upper strings. Stefano Montanari plays the game of antici …. pation in the last movement, taking a whole minute before diving into the movement proper. He is a very excellent soloist, and while the sound of the gut strings is thinner than a modern violin it inevitably mixes well with the backing of similarly period instruments.

Entirely sold on The Four Seasons, it is a delight to re-discover that the other concertos in Vivaldi’s Op.8 are no makeweights, and it is a genuine pleasure to have them in their entirety. As much attention to detail is spent on these remaining works, and we get the full works on the ‘Tempesta di Mare’, which has all of the wildness of an operatic intermezzo in which most of the cast are lost at sea. Il Piacere or ‘The Delights’ are portrayals of emotion, the light joy of the two outer movements contrasted by a lamenting descending bass in the central Largo e cantabile – proving you can’t have the light without the shade.

The second disc in this set covers all of the non-named concertos of Vivaldi’s Op.8, and La Caccia or ‘The Chase’ RV 362. Even though all of these concertos were published in 1725 they are in fact a selection from around 10 years worth of the composers output. The minor tonalities of the first concerto RV 242 are filled with potent drama, as are some of the violent contrasts in the opening Allegro of RV 332, and while most of these works lack the semantic references which made ‘The Four Seasons’ such a popular success the musical content is often every bit as substantial. La Caccia is a close cousin of ‘Autumn’ from ‘The Four Seasons’ and it seems strange that, like Pete Best, it remains relatively neglected as ‘The Fifth Season’, especially when so many CDs of these works cry out for suitable fillers. Remarkable and better known concertos like RV 210 provide useful reference points in terms of the standard of the whole, ensuring that your wow factor for these recordings is maintained. The oboe versions of RV 454 and 449 provide some welcome variety and are superbly played by Paolo Grazzi as soloist – and despite some criticism elsewhere I for one am grateful not to have to sit through the same works played on violin on the same disc. Yes, there is a good deal of space left on each disc, and ARTS might have done themselves a favour by shoving both discs into one case on some kind of special offer, but in terms of sheer quality I would be the last to complain.

These recordings have genuine audiophile credentials; it says so at the beginning of the booklet: THIS IS AN AUDIOPHILE RECORDING, so you know it must be true. The booklet lists an expensive array of microphones, and tells us that this is the "First ever recording and editing 24-bit/96Khz on 10 tracks" and that "The signal was not compressed or equalized at any stage during production" – something for which we can all be profoundly grateful. I’m no sound technician, but, given the chance to run my nice new SACD kit to full capacity I can appreciate the extra dimensions this kind of presentation gives. Compared to the standard CD setting the space around the musicians, the sheer spread of sound is greatly enhanced in SA, and the greater involvement of the acoustic adds to the effect of colour and dynamic – the sense of air being moved by living sound. These recordings have received a number of awards and nominations, which are listed in the back of the booklet of volume 1, and the recordings of L’Estro Armonico Op.3 are also now available in this format. All I can say is that these plaudits are all richly deserved, and if you are looking for something more than merely decent to play on your expensive SACD system then this is a very good place to find high octane ear food, and music and performances that you will want to listen to more than once – in spades.

Dominy Clements


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