Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op.8 Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’ invenzione - Nos.1-4 The Four Seasons (1725) [45:51]
Concerto in E flat major Op.8 No.5 La tempesta di Mare [9:33]
Robert Atchison (violin)
Altamira Chamber Orchestra
Sir Michael Gambon (narrator)
rec. March 2011 (narration February 2011) St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London
GUILD GMCD 7375 [55:26]

The world does not lack for recordings of The Four Seasons, but still they come. This latest entrant, however, has an appealing and rare component which is the interpolation of the ‘descriptive captions’, read by Sir Michael Gambon. These, or the Sonnets, from which they largely derive, are often reprinted in booklets of the music, but are very seldom read in the context of the performance, as they are here. Gambon was in a studio, whilst the music was recorded in a church, and the two acoustics retain independence, and have not been ‘blended’.

As Albert Sammons said to Josef Szigeti at a concert once; ‘it doesn’t much matter what Kreisler plays, it’s that tone we come to hear.’ The same is true of the Great Gambon. Whether it’s Arthur Miller or an increasingly wide portfolio of television advertisements, the man has cornered the market in ingratiating, conversational warmth. He reads the captions with unselfconscious directness. The translations are by Dr. Jordan Lancaster, and they are nicely done. I only bridled at the phrase ‘worst fears materialise’, which sounds like an economic forecast, not a shepherd’s concern for an impending storm. Very properly they are read as prose; these are not the Sonneti. There are two occasions where the music begins softly behind the reading of a caption, the music becoming louder as the lines finish. I’m sure some will deprecate the effect, but I can’t say I disliked it.

Robert Atchison is the neat soloist and the Altamira Chamber Orchestra supports him. Their line-up is 4-4-3-2-1 and harpsichord/organ, and they play modern set-up instruments. The performance is quite spacious in places, with strong contrasts sometimes between relaxed material and explosive virtuoso passagework. The performance is strong on languor and warmth, and an almost proto bel canto sense of line, too. The organs registrations are discreetly accomplished; I particularly liked them in the first movement of Summer, in both unisons and behind Atchison in his solo passages. If you have become used to Tarrantino-like interpretations of this work; metallic rainfall, Baskervillesque dogs, Armageddon-like storms, nature at its most malign, music at its most visceral, then you will find this performance too tame, discreet, and understated. If, however, you appreciate the musical approach to, say the Adagio and piano/Presto and forte contrasts in the central Summer movement, or the simplicity of Winter’s Largo, then you will be well content. This last, with sensitive organ support, and nice orchestral pizzicati, is even enlivened by discreet portamenti from Atchison and some simple ornamentation toward the final phrase – the last note of which is held for some considerable time, as if he couldn’t bear to let it go. I must admit a strong prejudice in favour of this kind of approach. I’m sure we’ve all heard performances where it’s been ornamented to death.

There is an additional work, the Concerto in E flat major Op.8 No.5 La tempesta di Mare, another nature tone-setting, the performance of which shares qualities of elasticity, characterisation and reserved musicality with the major work.

If you’ve sometimes been confused by The Four Seasons, by what is being depicted and when, in what order – I’m sure many of us have, we just don’t like to admit it (a bit like the depictions in the Enigma Variations) – then here’s a handy way to fuse text and music. Characterization here is decidedly not outsize, so bagpipe drones, torrent and animal life is more Chardin than Goya. But I rather warmed to these well recorded, expansive performances.

Jonathan Woolf

I rather warmed to these well recorded, expansive performances.