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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
A Vivaldi Grand Tour

Midori Seiler (violin)
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Xenia Löffler (baroque oboe)
Academy for Ancient Music Berlin/Georg Kallweit
rec. 2010-14
HARMONIA MUNDI HMX2908745.47 [3 CDs: 68:34 + 65:21 + 68:42]

This 3-CD set from Harmonia Mundi is dubbed A Vivaldi Grand Tour – and consists of the jewel-case versions of three previous Vivaldi releases with the splendid Academy for Ancient Music Berlin - or Akamus, as they like to abbreviate themselves, if abbreviated they must be.

All three discs include works by other composers to mix it up a little and, arguably ironically, the only Akamus disc that is actually all-Vivaldi - one of double concertos, apparently, strangely out of print? - isn’t included. Most surprisingly, none of the releases have been reviewed on MusicWeb International before, except for a short mention of the “Golden Age” disc with oboe concertos, in a recent Download News. Midori Seiler and Jean-Guihen Queyras are favourite artists to whom I am positively inclined. There is hope, though it might be in vain, that awareness of potential bias guards me against it. Let’s start with the Cello Concertos disc and Jean-Guihen Queyras.

The “Cello Concertos” disc contains only three cello concertos and non-cello concertos. Four, actually, if you more generously include the concerto for cello and bassoon. While Dubins doesn’t think highly of Queyras’ argument (The interview with Queyras is not included in this re-issue’s liner notes) of too much sameishness – had he included all and only Cello Concertos – being detrimental to the listening pleasure, I’m with Queyras on that point. The mixing-up of timbres and structure is exactly what makes La Serenissima’s Vivaldi recordings on Avie, such a joy, and it too, helps this recording - which further includes three sinfonias, two of which are by Antonia Caldara.

I’ll grant a case of slightly misleading labelling, but if you think of it as a Vivaldi Concerto album with a slight focus on the cello-concerto type, it’s as great as Dubins eventually finds the disc, anyway: “[Queyras’] playing is … phenomenal ... Beyond his sterling technique, perfect intonation, and gorgeous tone, he has a way of articulating notes and phrases … that makes the music seem like it’s dancing. There’s a lift and an élan to his bowing that springs the notes right off the page and sends them airborne.” Well, I agree with that, fully, and it might bear pointing out that the cello is featured quite prominently in the de facto concerti grossi, so one really isn’t lacking for the goodness of Queyras on this release, even if he isn’t constantly in the limelight.

While the performances don’t sound particularly HIP in all their perfection, the interpretations certainly do: they thrust forward with great speed and urgency and occasional wild fury. There are few moments of rest in any of these solo concertos’ fast movements, which makes the introduction of the sinfonias all the more welcome. If you are looking for a more complete selection of Vivaldi’s cello concertos, and a more distinct old-music sound, look at the 2-CD Harmonia Mundi re-release with cellist-director Roel Dieltiens and his “ensemble explorarions”. Michael Cookson’s review of volume 2 from the initial release is here. They take these concertos at a slightly more relaxed pace and Dieltiens more subtle instrument isn’t pushed into the foreground by the recording engineers. Better yet, combine the two, since they overlap only in one concerto.

We move on to the Four Seasons, and Midori Seiler: The recording of Akamus is a relatively new release, having entered the Seasonal fray only in 2010. Described as “freewheeling” in the best of senses, it garnered good reviews wherever it was reviewed. In the New York Times for example, where Alan Kozzin pointed out one of the really strong moments of the release, namely the first movement of Autumn where “Ms. Seiler’s rubbery portamento and casual rhythms suggest alarming levels of inebriation”. So much that it makes Nigel Kennedy’s wilfully bold recording seem school-boy stuff from a laughable yesteryear. Truly, doing a wild thing with these concertos, and making them the proto-tone-poems they may have been intended to be — which is to say: reproduce in sound the descriptive stanzas that go with it — sounds so much more organic now, than it did then. Also: Seiler has a more beautiful, more confident tone than Kennedy in any of his recordings. This shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking that Akamus/Seiler are really out there, among HIP and vivid, picture-painting performances: Giardino Armonico, for example, go much further and so does my continued favourite Concerto Italiano with Rinaldo Alessandrini (Naïve).

In fact, except for Akamus’ reputation for not being a band that generally exaggerates things or pushes the envelope too radically, I was surprised by how genteel and refined this performance is for many of its movements. It's a, by 2015-standards, almost leisurely, but uncommonly beautiful exploration of the most over-played piece of classical music, save, perhaps, for that blasted Canon by poor Pachelbel. That should be enough for a recommendation (“Autumn” and “Winter” are especially fine) but with a work to which I listen more often on duty than I do for leisure, I don’t really need any more really superb versions just slightly below Alessandrini in my estimation.

Ahead of the Four Seasons business on the disc comes the near-contemporary work Les Éléments, the 1737 ballet by Jean-Féry Rebel, which is imaginative and vivid French baroque at its finest, with just as many opportunities for sound-painting (“Le Chaos”, “Rossignols”, “La Chasse” being some of the 11 movement titles, and “Fire”, “Earth”, “Water”, and “Air” the elements portrayed) as the Four Seasons. Akamus certainly takes every opportunity to do so, starting with the startling, truly-true-to-its-name opening chord of “Chaos”.

Now for Venice: The Golden Age, with baroque-oboist Xenia Löffler, hardly out of the gates and already in a re-issue package. It has garnered very nice reviews on its initial release last year, including a write-up in Gramophone which homed in on the soloist: “… the third ‘theme’ of the disc is undoubtedly the superb oboe-playing of Xenia Löffler, as smooth and swellingly expressive in slow movements as it is ripplingly agile in quicker ones. It is masterly playing and this disc is her triumph.”

In an interview she claimed that her goal was to present the proximity of the human voice to the oboe. The point is attempted by opening with Uri Rom’s quasi-pasticcio, where he takes, among other Italian baroque models and quotations, elements and melodies from Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade. Now I readily agree that the oboe is one of the most beautiful and charming of solo instruments, but it doesn’t remind me of the human voice as much as some other instruments. More of waterfowl, actually … albeit the very musical type. Reviewing the Australian oboist Emma Black in concert, I could not help but point out that she had “displayed a tone so clean and playful and beautiful — much as if Pavarotti had been reincarnated as a goose …”. I don’t find Xenia Löffler’s tone as obviously impressive. It's given a just slightly more stuffed quality, but it’s still very gorgeous. Perhaps more like Gérard Souzay-comme-canard, although that gets weird, because as far as actual voices are concerned, I prefer the latter (baritone) by a considerable margin over the former (tenor).

In any case, the pasticcio is a slow start to a disc that readily takes on momentum when Echt-Vivaldi gets into the game, especially with the zipping Concerto in B flat major which is a hybrid between a real Vivaldi violin-concerto and a Vivaldi-contemporary oboe-loving arranger who tacked on a few oboe-featuring movements in the style of Vivaldi. Not that my ears would ever have detected that, but the liner-notes were kind enough to point it out. The Marcello Concerto rings a bell, too, because Master Bach took to it and improved it into the solo-keyboard work BWV 974; one of the selections that Alexandre Tharaud plays on his godly “Concertos Italiens” disc. In the orchestral version it almost – not quite – comes across as dull and laggardly.

When it comes to the only ‘official’, actual oboe concerto by Vivaldi on this disc, I prefer the HIP sonority of this recording - by the smallest of margins - but might like the performance of the just-reviewed recording of Vilém Veverka’s just a little better. Given that it’s an all-Vivaldi release - for filing purposes I don’t really count the similar Venetian composers, which are just texture-providers - and precisely because it offers a variety of textures, I covet the release, even as I can’t quite get excited about it. If and when I have a Vivaldi HIP oboe craving, I’m most likely to turn to Alfredo Bernardini and the Ensemble Zefiro on naïve 30478; as yet not reviewed on MusicWeb International.

These Harmonia Mundi collections/re-issues are close, but apparently not identical, to the original issues … they are in jewel cases now, with extant if seemingly reduced liner-notes and held together by a simple cardboard banderole. This makes the seasoned collector rejoice: Toss the flimsy sleeve and file individually.

Jens Laurson

Cello Concertos RV 409, 412, 419, 424
Concertos RV 114, 416, 565, Sinfonia in C major RV 709
Sinfonie Nos. 6 and 12
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Georg Kallweit (director)
rec. October 2010, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany

Four Elements

Four Seasons
Jean-Féry REBEL Les Éléments
Midori Seiler (violin)
rec. September 2012, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany

The Golden Age
Concerto in E minor, RV 134
Concerto in B flat major, RV 364 / Anh.18
Concerto in G minor, RV 567
Concerto in C major, RV 450
Alessandro MARCELLO (1666-1747)
Concerto in D minor
Giovanni PORTA (ca.1675-1755)
Sinfonia in D major
Carlo TESSARINI (1690-1766)
Overture in D major from op.4 “La Stravaganza”
Uri ROM (b.1969)
Concerto “L’Olimpiade” in C major; “quasi-pasticcio” after Vivaldi & Tessarini
Xenia Löffler (baroque oboe)
Georg Kallweit (violin & concertmaster)
rec. October 2013, February 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany



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