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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerti Grossi, Op.8, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (from original manuscripts)
L’estro armonico, Op. 3
Full track listing at end of review
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi (violin)
rec. Studio de la Fondation Tibor Varga, Sion, Switzerland (Op.8) 8-11 July and 7-10 October 2000; Santa Maria Assunta, Puianelle, Reggio Emilia, Italy (Op.3) 24-28 September 1997; 28-31 January 1998. DDD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6484082 [4 CDs: 51:39 + 51:08 + 46:20 + 53:52]

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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerti Grossi, Op.8, Nos.1-4, Le quattro stagioni Concerto No.1 in E, RV269, la Primavera [10:07]
Concerto No.2 in g minor, RV315, l’Estate [9:56]
Concerto No.3 in F, RV293, l’Autunno [11:37]
Concerto No.4 in f minor, l’Inverno [8:28]
Concerti Grossi, Op.4, La Stravaganza
Concerto No.10 for four violins, cello and strings, in c minor, RV196 [7:45]
Concerto No.3 for violin and strings, in G, RV301 [9:15]
Concerto No.4 for four violins and strings, in a minor, RV550 [9:09]
John Holloway (violin)
Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott;
La Stravaganza Köln/Andrew Manze
rec. Denon, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London 1983 (Seasons); 1991 (la Stravaganza). DDD.
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD058 [64:17]

Experience Classicsonline

The Virgin reissue will be self-recommending to anyone who has heard any of the performances contained on it or remembers having read reviews of any of these award-winning recordings when they were first released. Though the identical performances of Op. 3 remain available on a 2-CD set, the price of the new 4-CD box undercuts that set by around £3. The two-CD set of Op. 8 also remains available for around £11.50 (5619802) but, again, the new set, for only £3 or so more, represents better value unless you are averse to the format - the four individual discs are contained in stiff cardboard sleeves and they and the booklet are housed in a hinged cardboard box. The contents could easily have been fitted on three discs, with a little rearrangement, but that’s a small consideration when the price is so generous.

Reviewing a rival set of the Four Seasons, Michael Cookson continued to make this Biondi recording his first choice:-

“My premier period instruments recommendation, for its incredible rapid-fire energy and amazing virtuoso pyrotechnics, is the wonderfully colourful interpretation by Fabio Biondi as baroque violin soloist and director of Europe Galante ... on Virgin Veritas ... Using original manuscripts Biondi’s recording includes terrific recordings of the remaining eight concertos from the Op. 8 set; a real bonus for any collector.” (See review).

I would be flying in the face of almost universal critical opinion if I failed to agree - and, while I’m not averse to doing that on occasion, I certainly don’t wish to do so in this case: Biondi is just as recommendable now as when MC wrote that in 2003.

That doesn’t mean that this is the only recording that I shall turn to. As with another extremely powerful version which I reviewed some time ago (Arts 47564-8 and 47565-8, Stefano Montanari and Ottavio Dantone with the Accademia Bizantina - see review) there will be times when I shall be looking for something a little less dramatic. That Arts recording was otherwise my version of choice, but now it’s seriously challenged and, perhaps even superseded by the Biondi.

Both these Italian teams offer the complete Op. 8 set, not just the well-known Four Seasons. If you’re wondering whether the remaining eight concertos are worth adding to your collection, my answer is an emphatic affirmative. You may find, in any case, that you have already heard some of the other works, such as No.5, La tempesta di mare, representing a storm at sea, without realising where they came from. Both Biondi and Dantone offer first-rate performances of these remaining concertos and both are very well recorded. The availability of the Arts discs in SACD format may tilt the balance slightly in their favour if that’s what you are looking for. When I first reviewed them, I was able to hear only the CD layers, but they do sound marginally better, even in stereo, on an SACD player.

If you’re looking for a ‘safer’ recommendation for the complete Op. 8 concertos, I continue to recommend another budget price Virgin set: Monica Huggett and the Raglan Baroque Players under Nicholas Kraemer, 5616682, 2 CDs for around £8.50. By calling that set ‘safer’, I certainly don’t mean to imply that it’s inferior to Dantone and Biondi. I still turn to it with pleasure when I’m not in the mood for quite so much drama.

Dal Segno have reissued the John Holloway/Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott recording of The Seasons, first issued by Denon in 1984, together with a later Denon recording of three of the best-known concertos from Op.4, la Stravaganza, with Andrew Manze as soloist and director of the eponymous La Stravaganza Köln, selling for around £7.50 in the UK. Both of these constituent parts were well received on their first release and would deserve to do very well again, were it not for the minor reservations which I express below.

If you’re just looking for a version of the Seasons, the issue becomes incredibly complicated. Way back when I discovered Vivaldi, the choice boiled down to Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in stereo on full price Decca, or, for impecunious undergraduates, the reissue on Ace of Clubs of his older mono recording. No-one then could have dreamt of the abundance of first rate recordings of these concertos, on early instruments or their modern equivalents, based on published editions or manuscript sources and in various price brackets - and always with something different to offer.

For the modern equivalent of Münchinger - whose most recent recording, incidentally, remains available, The Essential Vivaldi, 443 7682, 2 CDs - look no further than Alan Loveday and Neville Marriner with the Academy of St Martin’s on Decca The Originals 475 7531. The recording has been extremely well refurbished and the addition of three extra concertos brings the playing time to a respectable 74 minutes. For all my love of period-instrument performances, I still turn to this Decca recording with pleasure.

Another recording, this time on period instruments and, like the Biondi, edited from manuscript versions, has also been a favourite ever since it appeared on LP in the early 1980s. It, too, now offers much better value than originally, with the addition of two other concertos (RV548 and RV516) to bring the total playing time to 56:38: Simon Standage and the English Concert/Trevor Pinnock, DG The Originals 474 6162. Though listed in the DG international catalogue, I’m amazed to see that the CD seems no longer to be available in the UK, but it is available as a download for £7.99 in good mp3 sound at 320kb/s from Passionato - here. I haven’t heard Pinnock’s earlier 1978 CRD version of The Seasons and the complete Op.12 (CRD33489), again with Standage and the English Concert: Christopher Howell spoke well of it when it was reissued as part of a Brilliant Box - see review. At around £13.50, it’s almost as expensive for two CDs as Biondi’s 4-CD set.

Christopher Hogwood’s complete recording of Op. 8 with the Academy of Ancient Music, and five different distinguished soloists, is no longer available on CD and the disc which contains just the Four Seasons (475 9098) offers poor value at less than 39 minutes playing time. Passionato come to the rescue again with a 6-CD set of Hogwood directing complete recordings of Op. 3 and Op. 8 - thereby affording competition with the Biondi set - plus excellent versions of Op. 4, la Stravaganza, and Op. 9, la Cetra, the unjustly neglected Cinderellas among the named sets of concertos. In good mp3 sound for £24.99, this is highly competitive, even setting aside for the moment the performances of Op. 4 and Op. 9, to which I hope to return in a future Download Roundup (Decca 475 7693 - here).

Hogwood scores over Biondi by assigning Op.8/9 and Op.8/12 to an oboe soloist, which not only provides variety but fully suits the nature of these two concertos. At times, too, Hogwood displays a little more rhythmic verve than Pinnock and Kraemer - not that this element is lacking in their performances - thereby providing a middle way between them and Biondi. If your CD deck or car player will accept mp3 discs, you can use the iTunes player to burn the whole of Hogwood’s box set on to two discs, with over three hours each of music - ideal for the car.

The Dal Segno label is doing sterling service in reissuing at mid-price several worthwhile recordings which have fallen by the wayside. Taken on its own, their new reissue could certainly be regarded in that light but, unfortunately, it comes up against very strong competition from Fabio Biondi and the other recordings of The Seasons which I have mentioned - to which must also be added the budget Virgin Veritas 2-CD set of Andrew Parrott’s own rival recording, again with the Taverner Players, coupled with several other Vivaldi concertos, twice the content for around £1 more than the Dal Segno (4820882).

The original Denon release contained six of the twelve Op.4 concertos. While it received general acclaim, the decision not to complete the set was remarked on. It’s a real shame that the set was not completed or that Dal Segno were not able to source the remaining works elsewhere, since the three concertos here seem even more forlorn on their own - a 2-CD set of The Seasons and the whole of Op.4 would have been really competitive.

This reissue is, nevertheless, good value - it actually plays for two minutes longer than the 64:17 stated on the rear insert - and it could be just what some novice collectors are looking for. I hate to seem to damn it with faint praise - it’s worth much more than that - but I have to consider it in context.

There are inexpensive modern-instrument versions of the complete Op. 8 on Chandos (CHAN6697(2): the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra directed by violinist Ronald Thomas) and of numbers 5 to 8 and 10 to 12 on Naxos (8.550189: Budapest Strings/Bela Banfalvi). These offer decent performances which will suit those who eschew period instruments, but they sound rather tame by comparison with Biondi and the other period-instrument performances. The main interest of the Chandos version concerns the employment of the oboe, rather than the violin, in two of the concertos, as on the Hogwood set.

With so many Four Seasons geese in varying shades of gold, there’s just one turkey in my opinion, bestseller though it be, the version by Nigel Kennedy. To undertake detailed comparisons of all the other recordings would be tedious and pointless, since they all make perfect sense within their own contexts. I shall, however, compare the period-instrument versions and Marriner’s of the largo second movement of the Spring concerto. Overall tempi for this movement are:

Biondi: 2:11
Kraemer: 2:17
Dantone: 2:21
Hogwood: 2:25
Parrott: 2:29
Pinnock: 2:41
Marriner: 3:29

There are no huge surprises here, though I had not expected Kraemer to clock in almost as fast as Biondi and faster than Dantone. Parrott is on paper - and sounds - slightly slower than either of the Italians, Pinnock and Marriner slightly more so, but neither extreme sounds excessive. Only if played immediately after Biondi or Dantone does Marriner sound a little too low; paradoxically, he is even slightly slower than Münchinger’s stereo remake, which takes 2:57. Least surprising of all is that Hogwood’s tempo falls exactly in the middle: if pressed for just one desert-island recording of this movement, I would have gone for his version as hitting the right speed.

Though overall timings are fairly close, however, the treatment of the four voices within this movement are quite different. My copies of the score mark the solo violin and first and second violin parts pianissimo sempre, as representing il capraro che dorme (the sleeping goatherd - the solo violin) and caro mormorio di fronde e piante (the gentle murmur of leaves and plants - first and second violins) mentioned in the accompanying sonnet. The viola part, however, is marked sempre forte: si deve suonare sempre molto forte e strappato (loud throughout: must always sound very loud and agitated) to represent the goatherd’s dog, lying beside its master and barking - or snoring? - Il cane che grida.

Biondi observes this direction to the letter; the others observe it to varying degrees, or even level everything to pp. The effect is quite startling; you may even think it overdone, but it is what the score requires, and Dantone comes very close to achieving the same effect. Parrott certainly contrasts the viola part with the other voices, though I wouldn’t exactly describe it as molto forte - more like plain marcato. Pinnock also allows the viola part to shine through, though less than Parrott and much less than the Italian conductors.

Marriner, who adopts a very languid tempo, suitable for invoking the sleeping goatherd and the gently murmuring leaves and plants, lets the viola part go almost for nothing, as does Hogwood, albeit at a faster tempo. One might have expected the viola part to have stood out more forcefully when this latter version adopts the one-instrument-to-a-part approach. If Biondi’s very forceful interpretation starts as something of a culture shock, Marriner and Hogwood are just too content to leave sleeping dogs lie; sorry about the pun.

I have chosen this movement to demonstrate the extent to which choosing a ‘best’ version is such a matter of swings and roundabouts: Hogwood for the ‘ideal’ tempo, Parrott or Pinnock for the best compromise regarding the viola part, Biondi or Dantone for those who demand the full drama of the music and the letter of the score.

The strength of Marriner’s version, for me, has always lain in the way that he and Loveday evoke Winter in the first movement of that concerto. At a steady, but far from sluggish tempo (3:18), they really make the listener shiver. Pinnock and Standage, who are a little faster at 3:14 sound pretty shivery, too, but don’t quite manage the same effect for me, even though it’s snowing hard as I write this.

The Winter steals in gently from Hogwood and Mackintosh. For all my admiration of this recording overall, and of the Opp.3, 4 and 9 works which are coupled with it, I’d like something a little more forceful: it just doesn’t make my teeth chatter through the severe cold (pel soverchio gel batter i denti).

Dantone and Montanari make the cold strike right through me, taking all of 3:22 to do so, though never sounding slow: the movement is, after all, marked allegro non molto - my emphasis. By contrast, the drips of rain in the following largo are rather too fast in their hands.

At 3:33 Parrot and Holloway adopt the slowest tempo for this movement, though they never sound unduly slow. They bring Winter in rather cautiously, but soon adopt the same wintry astringency of string tone which Marriner achieves from the beginning. They might be the ideal compromise, except that they, like Dantone and Montanari, also despatch the drips of rain a little too quickly for me in the following movement.

Unsurprisingly, Biondi is the fastest exponent of the opening of Winter, at 3:11. He achieves a chill right from the start with the prominent continuo - here played to great effect on the harpsichord rather than the organ, cello or theorbo - and he subsequently evokes the severe blasts of the orrido vento. He scores again by not letting the rain drip from the eaves too quickly in the largo. No other version evokes the season so effectively, though, once again, you pay your money and take your pick from seven versions that I could - and do - happily live with overall.

I’ve devoted most of this review to Op.8 and especially to the first four concertos of that collection, since these are best known to most people. I think that most readers would find much to enjoy in all seven: though those averse to period instruments would wish to opt for Loveday and Marriner, even lovers of early instruments would almost certainly find a great deal to enjoy.

Biondi couples Op.8 with a recording of Op.3 that you would find hard to beat and all at an incredibly generous price. Buy it with confidence. If you value a quiet life, you may prefer Hogwood and thereby obtain equally fine versions of Op.4 and Op.9 as a download which is even more economical, minute for minute. The Parrott reissue represents something of a compromise between the two, offering the Four Seasons and three concertos from Op.4 on a single CD at mid price. Though recorded by two different groups, the similarity of approach from these two sets of accomplished performers avoids any jarring of styles. Again, purchase with confidence if that is all that you want. Be prepared, however, for the fact that you will almost certainly wish to explore Vivaldi’s other concertos - at least Op.3, Op.4 and Op.9 and the rest of Op.8 - whichever of the new reissues you choose.

That being so, let me make a few other recommendations: Marriner and the Academy offer excellent 2-CD sets of Op.3 and Op.4 (Eloquence 467 4322 and Decca 444 8212 respectively), as again do the Academy, this time with Iona Brown, of Op.9 (448 1102 - available only as a download from Passionato.com here). Pinnock and the English Concert couple Op.3 with the flute concertos, Op.10, on a 2-CD DG set (477 5421 - download only from Passionato.com here) and - even better value - as part of a wonderful Vivaldi 5-CD bargain box (471 3172). Kraemer, Huggett and the Raglan Baroque Players in the complete Op.8 represent excellent value (Virgin 5616682) and their 4-CD set of Op.8 and Op.9 was even better value: though currently unavailable on CD, don’t even dream of downloading this from Passionato.com at a ridiculous £206.99! Amazon.co.uk have their Op.9 to download here for £5.99.

If you’re looking for more Biondi performances of Vivaldi, there are two other recommendable recordings on the Virgin label, though still at full price: the Concertos for Viola d’amore and Orchestra, RV97, 392-7 and 540 on 3951462 - see review by Mark Sealey and review by Jonathan Woolf - and Concertos for mandolin and per molti stromenti on 5455272, a most enjoyable 67-minute album containing RV532, 558, 576, 564, 319, 425 and 555, recorded in 2001. I downloaded the latter in CD-quality lossless sound from Passionato - here - at £9.99 (or £7.99 for mp3) it represents a worthwhile saving over the parent CD and the performances are all that you would expect.

Both the Virgin and dal Segno reissues - indeed, all the recordings listed - sound fine in their different ways. You may find yourself wanting to turn down the volume a little for Biondi or up a little for some of the others.

The recordings under consideration come with varying qualities of documentation. The downloads have none, though I’m pleased to see that more and more providers now offer the relevant booklets, a move which Passionato, too, seems to be preparing for.

The dal Segno reissue contains two sides of notes on Vivaldi, which could have been more carefully proof-read - ‘Op.13’ for ‘Op.3’, for example - and a rather stilted English translation of the sonnets which accompany the Seasons. Only the Arts recording offers the original Italian and a decent translation of these sonnets.

The Virgin reissue contains a booklet in several languages: it’s adequate, but the multi-lingual format means that the notes are rather brief. I know that Pinnock’s source was the manuscript housed in the Rylands Library at Manchester, but Virgin specify only that Biondi has worked ‘from original manuscripts’. Which manuscripts?

Both these reissues are thoroughly recommendable in their different ways. Fabio Biondi offers the strongest overall recommendation for Op.3 and Op.8, and does so at a very reasonable price. Messrs Holloway, Parrott and Manze provide a welcome reissue of the contents of one and a half original CDs, again at a reasonable price, but leave me wanting the rest of Op.8 and Op.4. The purchase of either would, I hope, lead to exploration of substantial parts of Vivaldi’s other named sets of concertos - recommendations for these above - and the rest of his output.

Brian Wilson

Details
Biondi
Op. 8
Concerto No. 1 in E, RV269, Le quattro stagioni - la Primavera [9:03]
Concerto No. 2 in g minor, RV315, Le quattro stagioni - l’Estate [9:14]
Concerto No. 3 in F, RV293, Le quattro stagioni - l’Autunno [10:32]
Concerto No. 4 in f minor, RV297, Le quattro stagioni - l’Inverno [7:44]
Concerto No. 5 in E flat, RV253, La tempesta di mare [8:02]
Concerto No. 6 in C, RV180 [7:54]
Concerto No. 7 in d minor, RV242 [6:47]
Concerto No. 8 in g minor, RV332 [8:55]
Concerto No. 9 in d minor, RV236 [7:14]
Concerto No. 10 in B flat, RV362, La caccia [7:03]
Concerto No. 11 in D, RV210 [10:53]
Concerto No. 12 in C, RV178 [9:00]

Op. 3
Concerto No. 1 in D, RV549 [7:56]
Concerto No. 2 in g minor, RV578 [9:02]
Concerto No. 3 in G, RV310 [6:50]
Concerto No. 4 in e minor, RV550 [6:48]
Concerto No. 5 in A, RV519 [7:29]
Concerto No. 6 in a minor, RV356 [7:11]
Concerto No. 7 in F, RV567 [8:13]
Concerto No. 8 in a minor, RV522 [9:01]
Concerto No. 9 in D, RV230 [7:17]
Concerto No. 10 in b minor, RV580 [8:49]
Concerto No. 11 in d minor, RV565 [9:23]
Concerto No. 12 in E, RV265 [9:58]


 


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