Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op.8 (1725)
Concerto No.1 in E, RV269 (La primavera, Spring) [9:28]
Concerto No.2 in g minor, RV315 (L’estate, Summer) [10:26]
Concerto No.3 in F, RV293 (L’autonno, Autumn) [9:57]
Concerto No.4 in f minor, RV297 (L’inverno, Winter) [8:13]
Concerto No.5 in E flat, RV253 (La tempesta di mare, Storm at Sea) [8:50]
Concerto No.6 in C, RV180 (Il piacere, Pleasure) [7:46]
Concerto No.11 in D, RV210 [12:01]
Concerto No.10 in B flat, RV362 (La caccia, The Hunt) [8:09]
Concerto No.7 in d minor, RV242 [7:13]
Concerto No.8 in g minor, RV332 [9:24]
Concerto No.12 in C, RV449 [9:04]
Concerto No.9 in d minor, RV454 [7:57]
Pier Luigi Fabretti (oboe)
L’Arte dell’Arco/Federico Guglielmo (solo violin and concert master)
rec. Abbazia di Carceri d’Este, Padua, Italy, 19-21 and 25-27 June, 2014. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95045 [54:49 + 53:56]

It’s some time since I reviewed the Brilliant Classics 40-CD box of Vivaldi which contained some very decent but hardly outstanding recordings of the best-known sets of concertos, Op.3, Op.4, Op.8 and Op.9 by I Filarmonici and La Magnifica Comunità (94056 review).  Many of those recordings have since been incorporated into an even bigger 66-CD box (94840, around £130), but the concertos and sonatas Op.1 to Op.12 are replaced there by new performances from L’Arte dell’Arco, who contributed just the mandolin and lute concertos (CD10, still available separately on 93810) and the concerti con organo obbligato (CD12, still available separately on 94059) to the earlier box.  Brilliant Classics have also been releasing these recordings as separate super-budget releases on 2-CD sets, some currently available as downloads only.

I shall be reviewing some of those in Download News 2016/3 but everything that I have heard so far, including the Op.6 and Op.7, concertos confirms that they are far better than the now rather stodgy-sounding recordings which I Musici made of all Vivaldi’s published works for Philips – no longer available – and even better than the Op.6 concertos which Andrew Manze, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music recorded for Decca Oiseau-Lyre (4556532, with RV335, The Cuckow, download only, or Christopher Hogwood The Vivaldi Recordings, 4808019, 20 CDs, or The Baroque Era, 4786753, 50CDs – Bargain of the Month: Download News 2014/10).  The Brilliant Classics Op.6 concertos are available to stream (for subscribers) or to download for £6.47 from Qobuz and the Op.7 are on 95044BR, a 2-CD set at super-budget price, like the Op.8 set under consideration.

Since, however, I have been very impressed with all that I have heard, including this new recording of the complete Op.8 concertos – well worth obtaining even if you think you only want the first four, The Four Seasons – Vivaldi lovers may prefer to go for the complete set of concertos and sonatas, Op.1 to Op.12, which costs even less per disc than this very inexpensive release of Op.8.  (95200, 20CDs, target price £40).

Those earlier La Magnifica Comunità recordings of Op.8 from the 40-CD set remain partly available on a single Brilliant Classics CD (93314, Op.8/1-4, 5 and 6) but they are outclassed by the new recordings.  It’s not just a matter of tempi, though L’Arte dell’Arco tend to be faster – often considerably faster – in outer movements and slightly slower in the slow movements.  It’s more a matter of the sheer energy which Federico Guglielmo brings to the solo part and to his direction of the orchestra.  I take with a pinch of salt the publicity about stripping The Four Seasons of ‘centuries of misuse, romantic veneer and tasteless embellishments, going back to the roots of the music, and discovering the essential power and originality’; others have already done that but there’s only one other recording which matches the new Brilliant Classics for authenticity and energy.

That other recording comes from another Italian ensemble and it, too, is available at budget price: from Europa Galante directed by Fabio Biondi, Op.8/1-12 on Virgin 6025032, 2 CDs for around £8.50, or Op.3 and Op.12 on Virgin 6484082, 4 CDs around £14.50.  Reviewing the 4-CD set I wrote that Fabio Biondi offers the strongest overall recommendation for Op.3 and Op.8, and does so at a very reasonable price.  That certainly remains true, and I’m not alone in making it one of my top choices, but Federico Guglielmo shares almost all of Fabio Biondi’s virtues in these works: just as stunning without sounding quite as hectic.

Over more than half a century my ears have been opened to ground-breaking interpretations of The Four Seasons: first from Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra reissued in mono on Ace of Clubs, hailed when first released in 1951 as ‘played in admirably authentic fashion by this remarkable ensemble, who seem to be able to satisfy musicologists and ordinary music-lovers alike’.  Though it seemed revelatory at the time, that seems an unlikely judgement now, when his performance sounds stodgy: I listened again via a BNF reissue streamed from Qobuz.  Incredibly, Münchinger is not much slower than Guglielmo in the opening movement of Spring – 3:35 against 3:09 – but he sounds plodding by comparison.  In the second movement tempi are almost exactly the same – just one second slower than Guglielmo  and two seconds faster than Biondi – but the shepherd’s barking dog, so clearly marked in the score and properly enunciated by Biondi and Guglielmo, is almost inaudible; I’m sure it’s not just the older recording that’s at fault here.

The next benchmark in my discovery of The Seasons came from Alan Loveday with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Neville Marriner.  Since its release in 1970 on Argo ZRG654 it’s been available in various combinations and it remains my first choice for a modern-instrument version with a sense of period style, currently at mid-price on Decca Originals 4757531, with RV535, RV498 and RV443.  Marriner’s recordings of Op.3 (E4434762), Op.4 (4448212) and Op.9 (E4481102) are also well worth having, each on a 2-CD Decca Duo at budget-price.

The next stage of discovery was in 1983 with original instruments: Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music (Op.3, Op.4, Op.8 and Op.9 E4757693, now download only – from Presto – or Christopher Hogwood The Vivaldi Recordings, 4808019, 20CDs for around £52).  The Four Seasons from this set are available on a single CD, Decca Oiseau-Lyre 4759098, or as part of The Baroque Era, as listed above.  These recordings remain well worth considering, particularly if the rest of those box sets appeals: you may even already have The Baroque Era or part two of that collection when it was separately available as a very inexpensive download.  Hogwood does, however, now sound a little tame by comparison with Biondi and Guglielmo, which some may consider a virtue.

Another period–instrument set from around the same time has, I think, a slightly stronger claim for recommendation.  Simon Standage and Trevor Pinnock recorded The Four Seasons for DG Archiv in an edition based on a manuscript housed in Manchester, now reissued with RV548 and RV516 on DG Originals E4746162 at mid-price.  Supplement that with a DG Collectors Edition box set of the same performers in Op.3, Op.10 and a selection of other concertos (4713172, 5 CDs, target price £25) or get the 7-CD set which also contains The Seasons and Op.4 (4790135, target price £28) and you have the makings of a fine period-instrument Vivaldi collection but you will be lacking concertos 5-12 of the Op.8 collection.

Other more recent recordings have not shaken my allegiance to Marriner and Biondi until this new Brilliant Classics set came along.  Now I’m not at all sure whether to recommend Biondi or Guglielmo to those seeking a set of period-performances of the Op.8 concertos.  With equally fine performances of concertos Nos. 9 and 12 on the oboe, the balance is shifted slightly in favour of Guglielmo.  One small observation rather than a complaint: it might have been better to have interspersed the violin and oboe concertos instead of leaving the latter to the end of the second CD.

All the recordings mentioned – apart from Münchinger, ground-breaking though he was in his day – have something different and interesting to say about these concertos – the Marriner can throw up some new aspect even after all these years of familiarity – but the new recording is outstandingly good and may even come to oust the Biondi from top place when I choose a version to listen to.

L’Arte dell’Arco play the concertos one to a part but the bright and well-rounded recording makes them sound anything but scrawny.  The booklet is more substantial and much better than you might expect for a super-budget offering, which is an additional recommendation.  I haven’t seen the booklet for the Biondi 2-CD set but Virgin super-budget twofer booklets tend to be short on detail.  The earlier Naïve/Opus 111 Europa Galante/Biondi recording of The Four Seasons, with RV171 and RV163, has been reissued for around £8.50 (NC40018 – reviewDownload News 2013/16).  It’s better value on a 4-CD set with String Concertos and the Dresden Sonatas (OP30517, around £16.50) but either option leaves you without the rest of Op.8.

Even those just looking for the first third of Op.10, The Four Seasons, will be hard pressed to find a good recording for the price of either the Virgin/Biondi or Brilliant/Guglielmo complete sets and they will obtain fine performances of the other concertos, all almost as appealing as the famous four.  You should be able to find the Brilliant Classics set for £8.75 or less – one dealer has it for £6.50 as a special offer – and the Biondi for around £7.75. 

If you thought you’d heard all that there was to be said about The Four Seasons this stunning new recording will make you think again and it comes with excellent recordings of the other eight Op.8 concertos.

Brian Wilson

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