Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Concerto Album
CD 1
Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, Op. 8/1-4 (The Four Seasons) (1725)
Concerto No. 1 in E, RV 269 (Spring) [10:14]*
Concerto No. 2 in G minor, RV 315 (Summer) [11:06]+
Concerto No. 3 in F, RV 293 (Autumn) [10:41]*
Concerto No. 4 in F, RV 297 (Winter) [9:13]+
rec. March 1959, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road
Concerto in A [7:50]
Flute Concerto in D, Op. 10/3, RV 428 (Il gardellino) (1729) [10:50]^
rec. June 1962, Rome Opera House
Concerto in E flat, Op. 8/5, RV 252 (La tempesta del mare) (1725) [9:55]#
rec. October 1959, Rome Opera House
L'estro armonico, Op. 3 (1711)
rec. October 1958 (Concertos 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12) and October 1959, Rome Opera House
CD 2
Concerto No. 1 in D, RV 549 [9:28]#§¶º
Concerto No. 2 in G minor, RV 578 [9:48]*+¹
Concerto No. 3 in G, RV 310 [7:34]§
Concerto No. 4 in E minor, RV 550 [8:32]§¶²³
Concerto No. 5 in A, RV 519 [8:13]²³
Concerto No. 6 in A minor, RV 356 [9:27]
CD 3
Concerto No. 7 in F, RV 567 [10:13]§#¶*¹
Concerto No. 8 in A minor, RV 522 [11:59]§#
Concerto No. 9 in D, RV 230 [8:58]*
Concerto No. 10 in B minor, RV 580 [10:30]*#¹
Concerto No. 11 in D minor, RV 565 [11:59]*#¹
Concerto No. 12 in E, RV 265 [11:08]*
*Luigi Ferro (violin); +Guido Mozzato (violin); ^Pasquale Rispoli (flute); #Edmondo Malanotte (violin); §Franco Gulli (violin); ¶Mario Benvenuti (violin); ºAlberto Poltronieri (violin); ¹Benedetto Mazzacurati (cello); ²Angelo Stefanato (violin); ³Renato Ruotolo (violin)
Virtuosi di Roma/Renato Fasano
EMI CLASSICS 5 09449 2 [3 CDs: 70:27 + 53:02 + 64:47]

Whether by chance or by design, the timing of these reissues proves fortuitous. Had these performances appeared during the CD boom of the 1980s - when the period-practice fraternity was well on its way to co-opting this repertoire - they'd probably have been dismissed as old-fashioned, if not actually unstylish. Now, with the historical movement sufficiently established not to have to fight for its place at the table, we've achieved a modicum of toleration for stylistic diversity - at least, outside of academia - and these readings sound charmingly "retro."

Don't dismiss them as curiosities, though - they're fine performances, of the kind common through the 1960s, when Vivaldi players could rely on their musicality without having to consider a raft of historical research along the way. The Virtuosi di Roma play on modern instruments in a modern way: bowing firmly, letting the bows sit briefly on the strings, allowing vibrato to enrich the tone. The result is a full-bodied sonority with a distinctly "Mediterranean" warmth, but one with enough rhythmic buoyancy, and enough air around the notes, to avoid the heavy-syrup sound and manner of, say, Stokowski's Four Seasons (Decca Phase Four, for those with long memories). The melodies breathe and sing easily, shaded and tapered with the coloristic and dynamic resources available on modern strings. The overall effect is of "symphonic" weight, if you will, but without losing the chamber-music interplay among the parts.

While the Seasons is clearly meant as the "draw" here, L'Estro Armonico is the real prize. Those who only know the Vivaldi of the Seasons will find the composer exploring a rather wide range of styles for instrumental concertos, including a feint towards a grand French overture in the B minor, a Largo of rapt, bleak stillness in the sixth concerto, and a haunting slow movement woven from solos and fragments in the F major. The Virtuosi have the measure of these pieces in all their diversity, outclassing even such estimable modern-instrument ensembles as the Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, whose adept, stylish performances (originally Argo, eventually Decca) sound comparatively generalized. The only demerit is earned by cellist Benedetto Mazzacurati, whose slow, pulsing tone can turn unattractive. Still, the Virtuosi's readings should once and for all rebut the glib truism that Vivaldi merely wrote the same concerto 500 times over.

This version of The Four Seasons was one of my favorites on LP, and it remains attractive. As in Opus 3, the color, singing quality, and sheer verve of the performances are hard to resist; the violins' full-throated attack on their running figures generates a frisson that period ensembles, with their paltry numbers of gut strings, can't emulate. Digital processing, however, reveals small flaws that the vinyl discreetly obscured. The violins can sound scrappy, or hard pressed, at the top; the unidentified solo cello is sour in its one exposed movement, again afflicted with a pulsing vibrato - so presumably it's Mazzacurati again. For this kind of performance, it's your choice between the alluring, polished veneer of I Musici (Philips) and the vitality and mildly frayed edges of this one.

The "filler" concertos on the Seasons disc share the merits of the rest of the set. In the flute concerto, I liked Pasquale Rispoli's pert, chiffy timbre - which stands out in clear relief against the string ensemble - and he spins out the tone spaciously, if not quite eloquently, in the central Largo. La tempesta di mare gets one of the spiffiest performances in the entire set, with the first movement's vigor brought up short by the searching ambivalence of the Largo.

As far as the engineering goes, the most finicky, digitally-weaned ear may hear an occasional bit of discoloration, but the fifty-plus-year-old stereo sound comes up with gratifying clarity and presence overall. I'm glad I got to know these performances, and you should do so, too.

Stephen Francis Vasta