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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos and String Symphonies - Vol.1

Israel Chamber Orchestra/Shlomo Mintz (violin; conductor)
rec. Metz, France at the Arsenal Concert Hall. Original release 1992, 1993 MusicMasters Classics
NIMBUS NI 2500-4 [5 CDs : 55:27 + 60:39 + 57:45 + 59:26 + 62:08]

Experience Classicsonline

 

Shlomo Mintz was Music Adviser of the Israel Chamber Orchestra from 1989 to 1993, and his recordings of the Vivaldi concertos and string symphonies originally appeared on MusicMasters Classics on 10 discs, the first of which appeared in 1993. Hunting the web for comments, I only found a few mentions of this set which were generally positive. ‘Not stodgy at all’ in comparison to I Musici’s 1960s recordings was one remark, and with precious few ‘complete’ recordings as opposed to a market awash with ‘The Four Seasons’ from Vivaldi’s Op.8 I can only regard the wider availability of Shlomo Mintz’s recordings as a welcome move by Nimbus.

Nimbus’s blurb on the website begins rather disingenuously with, "Vivaldi’s creative genius was not on a level with that of Bach, Mozart or Strauss…" This point is arguable, but the important thing to remember is that - in these concertos at least -Vivaldi was more often than not writing popular music for ‘the masses’, rather than expressing religious sentiment or creating entertainment for the elite classes alone. Stravinsky’s remark that Vivaldi wrote not 100 concertos, but 100 variations on the same concerto might have some superficial accuracy, but in the end our present-day music has pretty much reached the point that every new work – popular or not – is a variation on something in one way or another. Vivaldi’s sheer productivity, allied to his originality and inventiveness, assured his music’s influence on both his contemporaries and composers of subesquent periods, who could look back on his examples for both the formal structures in concerto form, and the freedom of expression which these structures and forms had the potential to permit.

Volume 1 of this Nimbus set contains none of the more famous named Vivaldi’s concertos for violin and orchestra: ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ which contains the "Four Seasons’, ‘La Stravaganza’, ‘La Cetra’or ‘L’Estro Armonico’. Of the named concertos we do have ‘L’amoroso’ RV271, but that seems to be it. What we do have is a fine collection of excellent music, opening with an energetic Allegro from the concerto in D major RV208.

I know Shlomo Mintz’s playing from that set of J.S. Bach Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin on DG 413 810-2, so the ‘rodeo’ opening solo in this concerto, with added open strings, is quite a surprise – albeit a highly delightful one. With harpsichord continuo adding colour and richness rhythmic and harmonic to the accompanying orchestra, these performances have quite an ‘authentic’ feel even though played on modern instruments.

The slimmer accompaniment of the slower movements emphasises an issue which may or may not disturb you in Disc 1 – depending on your disposition and equipment. Mintz’s solo violin is set relatively close to the microphones when compared to the rest of the instruments, and his clear and penetrating tone can mask some of what is going on in the background. I found this effect to vary somewhat depending through which equipment I listened, so if you know you have sharp and unyielding tweeters it might be worth sampling a track or two from somewhere online – not that this is a very fair test, a most sampling tracks are horribly compressed. The effect is ultimately the equivalent of having the orchestra sitting in the middle of quite a large ballroom floor, while Shlomo serenades the table next to yours. I found this balance on to which I could become accustomed, but would have preferred a more equal relationship between violin and orchestra. Later discs modify this situation to a certain extent, so I wouldn’t want to put anyone off too much: sound quality is otherwise very good indeed in this set.

Disc 3 presents what the booklet notes are the first recordings of these String Symphonies, in which such issues of balance do not arise. These are hardly well represented in the catalogue, and aside from a set on Nuovo Era with Budapest Strings I was hard pressed to find them available anywhere else. Without the spectacular violin virtuosity or melodic emphasis of a soloist these works don’t always present the immediate impact or attraction of some of the concertos, but take the contrapuntal/fugal first movement of the Symphony in E minor RV134 and you will soon become involved in some fascinating musical discourse. There is some clear antiphonal writing between 1st and second violins, and as these are clearly separated left and right in these recordings, all of these effects come through with crystal clarity, and are often great fun. Embryonic little ‘skyrockets’, the opening calls to attention, and some searching soft centres with the slow movements can all be seen as precursors of the classical style, and listening blind there are sometimes relatively few clues to the baroque background from which these pieces derive – true, the harpsichord is a bit of a giveaway, but movements like the opening Allegro molto from RV121 are not so very far removed from that much later ‘sturm und drang’ feel. These gems have been some of the finest discoveries for me from this set, and make a strong case in their own right.

If I have one minor criticism it is with packaging. Double jewel cases with those magical fold-out disc holders are all very well, but their fragility and lack of real grip on the discs themselves can be something of a liability. More than once I’ve absent-mindedly opened this thing and ended up with a lap or floor full of CDs, the rest of which remain precariously suspended in the jaws of one hinge or other, becoming increasingly chewed as a result. If the price is similar for the manufacturer, I would go for the slimline cardboard box and paper sleeves option any day.

The market is not overly flooded with large collections of the less well known of Vivaldi’s concerti, although there are excellent single CD issues by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra among others, which plough other furrows than those of the "Four Seasons". With playing of great refinement and technical brilliance throughout, these newly re-issued MusicMasters/Nimbus recordings are as good as self-recommending to any Vivaldi fan. Shlomo Mintz is a soloist of proven skill, and he shows both excellent leadership skills and musicianship in these recordings. None of the performances go beyond what one might expect from ‘the middle of the road’, but, like the guiding white stripes we drivers all have to follow when it gets dark – you wouldn’t want to be without them.

Dominy Clements

 

CD 1
Concerto in D major RV 208
Concerto in C major RV 186
Concerto in A minor RV 356
Concerto in E major RV 271
Concerto in C major RV 171
Concerto in D major RV 230
CD 2

Concerto in G major RV 310
Concerto in E-flat major RV 254
Concerto in C minor RV 199
Concerto in D minor RV 249
Concerto in D major RV 232
Concerto in E major RV 265
CD 3

Symphony in C major, No. 44, RV 114
Symphony in E minor, No. 13, RV 134
Symphony in E minor, No. 43, RV 133
Symphony in D major, No. 30, RV 121
Symphony in F major, No. 14, RV 136
Symphony in D minor, No. 19, RV 127
Symphony in C minor, No. 20, RV 119
Symphony in B-flat major, No. 12, RV 164
Symphony in G major, No. 36, RV 150
Symphony in A major, No. 1, RV 159
Symphony in A major, No. 22, RV 160
CD 4

Concerto in F major RV 260
Concerto in D minor RV 237
Concerto in D major RV 582 (for double orchestra)
Concerto in D major RV 213
Concerto in D major RV 228
Concerto in A major RV 340
CD 5

Concerto in G minor RV 328
Concerto in D major RV 205
Concerto in G minor RV 319
Concerto in C major RV 172
Concerto in B-flat major RV 370
Concerto in G major RV 302

 

 

 


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