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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op.8 Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’ invenzione Nos.1-4 The Four Seasons (1725) [61:23]
Nigel Kennedy (violin) and Members of the Orchestra of Life
rec. December 2011 and January 2012, Angel Studios and RAK Studios
SONY 88875076722 [61:23]

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op.8 Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’ invenzione Nos.1-4 The Four Seasons (1725) arr. Heinrich E. Grimm [46:43]
Concerto in D minor, RV565 No.11 from L’Estro Armonico arr. Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 596 [11:42]
Concerto in C major, Il grosso Mogul, RV208 arr. Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 594 [20:27]
Hansjörg Albrecht (Silbermann Organ)
rec. April 2015, Hofkirche, Dresden
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 1822 [78:41]

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Violin Concertos Op.8 Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’ invenzione Nos.1-4 The Four Seasons (1725) [30:25]
Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770)
Violin Sonata The Devil’s Trill in G minor B.g5 arr. Fritz Kreisler [16:36]
Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764)
Violin Sonata Tambourin in D, Op.9 No.3 [13:21]
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)
rec. October 2014, Angel Hall, Sydney, NSW (Vivaldi) and May 2014, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK (Tartini, Leclair)
ONYX 4134 [71:13]

Here we have a trio of Four Seasons, and let’s start with Nigel. His latest version was recorded back in 2011-12 and he’s been touring with it on and off, most recently to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his first immensely successful and controversial version. Now here he is on Sony with members of the Orchestra of Life - as opposed to what, precisely: Death? - in what must be the most elongated version available, a spine-extending 61 minutes. It enshrines a menagerie of sonic curiosities, sampled birdsong, ballsy, over-recorded percussion, spooky space age overdubs, Hendrix reflections, a dab of Led Zeppelin, marimba wash, whooshy rock back beats, shouting and thrash – and we’ve only just staggered through Spring. Some bossa nova infiltrates Summer – imagine sublimated Stan Getz - as well as thundering drums and answering elfin solo violin. My complaint regarding the latter is merely its relative predictability. There’s a touch of Big Easy trumpet in Autumn – guest Tomasz Nowak – whilst Kennedy himself throughout swaps between electric and conventional violins; Orphy Robinson plays marimba, Z-Star appears too. Keep up. Surely you know them?

I like the thoughtful colours evoked later in Autumn. Kennedy incidentally imposes his own movement titles – ‘Melodious incantation’ or ‘Horns, guns and dogs’, for instance, as well as a series of ‘transitoires’ in which he meditates within the individual movements – meditates musically on the violin that is. Gaelic lamentation blows in during this season and it’s in the finale that Hendrix makes his accustomed appearance on electric fiddle. Kennedy’s ‘prolotoire’ – so-called – of Winter ushers in lightly burnished Jazz over which he doodles. His slow movement feels slightly too fast. There’s a rather pointless pendant in the form of The End, which has nothing to do with Vivaldi – others might retort that nothing here has much to do with Vivaldi - but it might just get the audience out of the hall.

By the side of Kennedy’s pluralist iconoclasm, James Ehnes is the ne plus ultra of patrician stylists. He’s often performed the work in Australia – with the Melbourne Symphony principally – but here he turns to rivals in Sydney for this Onyx release. Here we find expressive refinement, natural perspectives, assured dynamics, princely tonal qualities and considerable lyrical elegance. It is for the most part sufficiently lively and buoyant, and Ehnes emerges as quite the unruffled virtuoso, not least in the dashing finale of Summer. The ice of Winter is conveyed quite without exaggeration of detail or razory tone. Its slow movement, undecorated, played straight and simply, reminds one of, say, Hugh Bean. It lacks, in the final resort, pathos but makes no attempt to court sentiment. Ehnes plays with no real ear for the HIP movement, but keeps the accompanying body unsaturated and on the move. This is a sane, eloquent performance, somewhat lacking the sense of fancy that illuminates Alan Loveday’s performance from all those many long years ago. He also offers two strongly, indeed commandingly performed sonatas - Tartini’s Devil’s Trill and Leclair’s Tambourin. Both might well have been selected to hammer his streamlined romanticist credentials to the mast. No pesky harpsichords here – just the authoritative pianist Andrew Armstrong.

The final disc offers the kind of surprise that Ehnes, of necessity, doesn’t. This is the organ transcription made by Heinrich E Grimm (b.1951) and played on the splendid-sounding Silberman organ of Dresden Cathedral by Hansjörg Albrecht. This is an arrangement ā la JS Bach’s arrangements of Vivaldi, and strangely enough gargantuan and more refined elements co-exist without quite managing to cancel each other out. The thunderous and the shimmering are both strong elements of this transcription and if, occasionally, an unwieldy element creeps in – I find the finale of Spring altogether too much so – one can also enjoy a great number of felicities. Vivaldian scotch snaps on the organ might seem a vista too far but it’s not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Sometimes the transcription turns things such as the opening of Summer into a kind of organ study but the delineation of cuckoo, turtle dove, and finch just about works and that’s not something I’d have predicted. The element of toccata as well as musette, Theremin and tea shop – try the opening of Autumn - is something to hear, as is the unleashing of the Dresden tromba. The slow movements suffer most, lacking expressivity but the blazing glory of the finale of Winter can’t be gainsaid. The huge sound decay in the cathedral is only apparent sometimes but invariably at the end of the concertos. Albrecht also adds two Vivaldi concertos for organ. First there’s a sensitively articulated RV565 with commensurate breadth in its Allegro finale, and then RV208, Il grosso Mogul, with a pomposo and huffing self-importance to the fore in a reading both full of character and grandeur.

Is there a winner here? All three are wildly different. Ehnes is the discreet choice, a kind of Perlman for this generation approach, though not quite hitting the mark for me. Kennedy will be out of bounds for many readers, I’m sure. But I liked his version. Take it for what it is – his glutinous love of many musics expressed through a truly theatrical medium. You can guess what you’re getting, and I’m glad I heard it. The organ work is something of an ear-opener – not wholly successful, and expressively somewhat circumscribed, but worth hearing, for sure. Transcending all these experiences for me are Loveday, the Academy and Marriner, but you’ll have your own favourites, your own Seasons for All Seasons.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review (Kennedy): Brian Wilson



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