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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons (Il quattro Stagioni) (1725) [39:36]: Spring (La Primavera) [9:31];
Summer (L’estate) [10:42]; Autumn (L’autunno) [10:46]; Winter (L’inverno) [8:37]
Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)
Concerto Grosso No. 4 in F major (based on Corelli, Op. 5, No. 4) [8:55]
Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor, Variations on ‘La Follia’ (based on Corelli, Op. 5, No. 12) [10:00]
Christina Day Martinson (violin) (Vivaldi)
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. 19-20 May 2008. DSD. Hybrid 5.1 multichannel and stereo SACD/stereo CD
TELARC SACD60698 [59:26]  
Experience Classicsonline


Period instrument renditions of Vivaldi’s perennial favorite The Four Seasons tend to come in two flavors: Piquant and explosive. These are both improvements on what for many years after the concertos’ rediscovery in the 1930s was a kid-gloved approach by modern orchestras afraid to unleash the wildness of Vivaldi’s imagination. When Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his daredevil, upstart period band the Concentus Musicus of Vienna recorded these chestnuts in the mid-1960s, they blew the lid off the world’s collective conception of these pieces. What was previously treated as very polite and gentle music was revealed to be music worthy of a composer with red hair, full of eccentricities and explosions. But back then it was a bit much for many people.
 

Regarded for many years as over-the-top, the Harnoncourt rendition drifted off to the side as several period groups of the 1970s and 1980s recorded versions which combined discerning amounts of spice with a more traditionally beautiful approach. This lead to marvelously crystalline recordings by the Academy of Ancient Music on L’Oiseau Lyre, the English Concert on Archiv, and my favorite piquant account, the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble on BIS. In recent years, Harnoncourt’s zest has finally been admitted as a valid approach - perhaps we’re all getting jaded! - spawning more recent “extreme” renditions by Il Giardino Armonico (Teldec) and Europa Galante (Opus 111 and Virgin). Each new recording can announce where along the continuum it falls. 

This new Telarc multi-channel hybrid SACD by Boston Baroque, under Martin Pearlman with Christina Day Martinson as soloist, definitely falls into the piquant but genteel category. Martinson is a vivid and characterful soloist; indeed, at times I felt that perhaps she would be interested in pushing the envelope a little further than her director. Pearlman pulls his punches, rarely letting his players exult in Vivaldi’s temper. 

The decision was made to use ornamentation on the solo lines, which is good to a point. And I might add that Martinson’s improvisations are generally quite wonderful. But one thing I do like about Simon Standage’s ornaments in the Pinnock/English Concert recording is that Standage always plays each melody through once, as written, then ornaments it upon repeat. This makes a huge difference in the slow movements of the Spring and Summer concertos, because Martinson starts adding notes immediately. Standage on the other hand begins starkly, intensifying the mood with long, held-out notes, and only gradually increases the lushness with improvisation. Martinson’s effusions, conversely, seem to come out of nowhere, like an actor’s unmotivated emoting. 

No one beats Harnoncourt’s oppressive opening for Summer, what with its pitch-challenged chamber organ continuo, but present company do well, even if the ensuing cuckoo solo is a bit hectic. Martinson’s turtledove and goldfinch birdsong solos are lovely, arguably the most rapt I’ve heard since Standage’s still unsurpassed hush. But credit must be given for the later “pleading shepherd” solo, where Martinson shapes it better than Standage, who pulled it too far out of shape. In all four finales, Pearlman holds back to restrained, even stolid tempos, so much so that Martinson audibly strains to push it ahead toward the end of Summer, though her solos get a little scratchy when she does. 

Martinson and Pearlman’s Autumn drunks are dispatched with an effective rubato, even if it isn’t as wayward as Enrico Onofri’s pitch-melting solo with Il Giardino Armonico. The slow movement of this concerto normally holds me spellbound, though the above Armonico recording (Teldec) drove me round the bend with a far too elaborate harpsichord continuo. The Telarc recording, though, is surprisingly intrusive here, spoiling the mood with a harpsichord sound roughly as large as the rest of the orchestra. Indeed, throughout the recording, the harpsichord is far more dominant than one could ever be in a real concert, unless the listeners were sitting right next to the instrument. Instead of softly lolling arpeggios in the background of the held-out, trance-like string tones, here we get loudly plonking harpsichord notes, with a vague cloud of string sound in the distance. Fearing that perhaps I was being overly fussy, I went back and compared this to the harpsichord balance in earlier Telarc recordings of the Boston Baroque, such as the Brandenburg Concertos from 1994, and even the Vivaldi Gloria from 2005, and the harpsichord was more properly in perspective in both. Others may be less bothered by this, but it was a serious spoiler for me. 

Another general drawback for me is that Pearlman unfailingly favors a very lean and astringent sound, biased toward the higher instruments. I like a little juicier instrumental texture, and a more prominent low end. Pearlman always seems to push his bass and cellos off toward the back of the soundstage, where they have less impact. I’d rather hear that harpsichord moved to the back corner, and the cellos and basses moved apart to give them more impact. I do like the rich coloring and fairly close placement of the theorbo used here in the continuo, though.

Joining the Vivaldi on this disc are some Geminiani arrangements of Corelli sonatas, including the popular Variations on “La Follia”, which are dispatched crisply and quickly here, playing up the more rakish aspects of the melody, as opposed to the morose side sometimes favored. One fine detail worth mentioning is the excellent cover design, sparing us the usual birds and trees. It is a photo of the elegantly carved bows of Venetian gondolas, thus suggesting Vivaldi, who lived and worked in Venice. But the curvature of the boats is also reminiscent of the fern-curls at the end of the peg boxes of violin-family instruments. And, to cap it off, each of the four boats is lightly trimmed in a seasonal color, yellow, green, red and blue. Very piquant.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

 




 


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