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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Le Quattro Stagioni, Op.8/1-4 (The Four Seasons, 1725)
Spring, RV269 [10:18]
Summer, RV315 [10:08]
Autumn, RV293 [11:39]
Winter, RV297 [8:44]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Four World Seasons (2007–11)
Autumn in Albania [6:40]
Tibetan Winter [5:06]
Spring in Japan [4:00]
Indian Summer [5:25]
Tasmin Little (violin)/BBC Symphony Orchestra
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11, 4 – 6 January 2016. DDD/DSD
CHANDOS CHSA5175 SACD [62:38]

Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com.

With more recordings of Vivaldi’s best-known concertos than one can shake the proverbial stick at – 300+ and counting – any new version has to be very special to be competitive. I suppose one could say that Nigel Kennedy’s latest bash on Sony was special, but in a way to which I didn’t at all warm – review. I’m amazed that it was the runner-up in the most recent Building a Library review: de gustibus non est disputandum.

The new Chandos has two tricks up its sleeve: it’s available as a hybrid SACD, a format which seems to be disappearing recently, and it comes with the first and only recording of Roxanna Panufnik’s attractive take on the subject, complete with Tibetan Singing Bowl.

Even so it faces formidable competition among recordings using modern instruments with a sense of period style. Among many strong contenders in this field the Decca Originals recording with Alan Loveday, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-fields and the late Neville Marriner is my top recommendation. Though recorded in analogue sound, it still sounds well – the CD transfer was made in 24-bit and there’s a 24-bit download from Qobuz – and the performances are highly inventive. When I returned to it some time ago after several years I heard aspects of the music that I had forgotten. It’s generously coupled with a concerto for two oboes, one for bassoon and one for flautino, and comes at mid price. (4757531 [74:20] around Ł8, or with Op.3, Op.4, Op.9 and wind concertos, 4754712, download only for around Ł23 in mp3 or Ł29 in lossless sound).

Older recordings of The Four Seasons were often characterised by the inclusion of a prominently recorded and large-scale harpsichord, mercifully largely absent from more recent versions, apart from another ASMF CD with Joshua Bell as soloist and Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata as coupling, so short value at full price and now download only.

To some extent the new Chandos recording marks a return to the prominent harpsichord. I’m on record as thinking that most recent baroque albums downplay the instrument rather too much, but I don’t want to hear it sounding too prominent either. Ideally the listener’s ear should just be aware that it’s there, which isn’t always the case on Chandos. Significantly the harpsichordist, David Wright, receives his own credit in the booklet, where Tasmin Little explains that she thinks the continuo often too bland. She points to Wright’s icicles at the start of Winter.

As it happens, that’s one of the most imaginative parts of the Loveday/Marriner collaboration. The harpsichord’s icicles are there to hear but not over-prominent, mostly underpinning the orchestra, with the solo violin well able on its own to suggest the cold of the season. Oddly enough, despite the special point made in the booklet, I didn’t find the harpsichord here on the Chandos recording too prominent. If anything, the opening of Winter from Little and her team is a bit tame by comparison not only with Marriner, who is a few seconds faster but a degree or two more urgent, but also with my favourite period-performance recordings: Simon Standage with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (mid-price DG Originals, with couplings, or budget-price DG The Works without couplings) and Fabio Biondi with Europa Galante (Erato) are slightly faster still.

The harpsichord comes most noticeably into play between the first movement of Summer – taken reasonably fast after a slowish start – and the second movement, taken rather fast.

On the whole neither Marriner nor Little indulges in fast tempi, with Little tending to be rather faster, for example in the finale of Summer – a real presto but not overdone. Biondi is faster still without sounding too hectic.

On the whole Tasmin Little and her team deliver an attractive middle-of-the-road performance. Despite my reservations about the prominence of the harpsichord – try listening to Wright’s interpolation at the end of track 7, the first movement of Autumn – and the use of a larger orchestra than usual – never overbearing in size – this is a version to which I shall return.

I shall certainly be returning to Roxanna Panufnik’s Four World Seasons, specially commissioned by Little who waited to record the Vivaldi until having a raison d’ętre. Adding more Vivaldi sometimes serves to highlight the superiority of The Four Seasons to most of the rest of his output, so a different take on the theme is a very welcome alternative.

Another recent release, from the Salomé Chamber Orchestra, directed by David Aaron Carpenter (viola), adds Piazzólla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteńas, charting the seasons of his home town of Buenos Aires, which also feature on some other Vivaldi Four Seasons recordings, and Alexey Shor’s (b.1970) Four Seasons of Manhattan. I have listened to the Shor from this recording, a very easy-going work, but I have as yet had time only to dip into Carpenter’s Vivaldi, from which I can report that the use of the viola as the solo instrument doesn’t sound disconcerting. In fact, I rather liked its warmer tone but can’t yet say how much I shall want to return to this in future. (Warner Classics 2564648695).

Much as I like the Piazzólla, on its own or as a coupling, I like the Panufnik even more. The opening Autumn in Albania with its Eastern European flavour is my favourite, perhaps because it’s dedicated to her father, the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik who ‘was born, loved and died in autumn’. If, like me, you find it very difficult to meditate without thoughts intruding or falling asleep, Winter in Tibet should be an ideal antidote. Spring in Japan and Indian Summer also successfully evoke the music of those countries.

Partly as a generous piece of publicity for the Panufnik Seasons on the new recording, Chandos have given subscribers to their newsletter an mp3 download of their fairly recent CD Messages, containing chamber works for strings by the Panufniks, father and daughter. You don’t get the booklet but that’s easily obtained free from the chandos.net website. (CHAN10839 – reviewreviewreview).

Hard on the heels of the new Chandos comes a new recording on period instruments from Shunske Sato and Concerto Köln on Berlin Classics. Despite special pleading in the booklet about eschewing strict period practice for the freedom inherent in this music and the availability of this, too, in 24-bit sound as a download – also on vinyl for twice the price of the CD – there’s no special coupling to catch the attention. In addition to The Four Seasons we open with the Concerto for Strings in g minor, RV156 and the Sonata Al santo sepolcro, RV169, is oddly placed between Summer and Autumn, interrupting the flow. Recorded in June 2016, so hot off the press, this is a very short offering for a full-price CD.

If you are looking for a period-performance Seasons my recommendation remains Fabio Biondi (Erato 4-CDs, super-budget price, Op.8 and Op.3 complete – review) or the more recent Brilliant Classics recording of the complete Op.8 from L’Arte dell’Arco and Federico Guglielmo (2 super-budget CDs: Recording of the Month, or complete Op.1-Op.12, 20 CDs – review – or ‘complete’ Vivaldi box set 94840, 66 CDs – review).

Those looking to progress to Vivaldi beyond The Four Seasons might well find a new recording from Harmonia Mundi (HMC902249) to their liking, featuring violinists Giuliano Carmignola and Amandine Beyer with the period ensemble Gli Incogniti. I downloaded this very entertaining album in 24/88.2 sound from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet. Both soloists are committed performers of Vivaldi in their own rights but here they knock spots off each other in a very lively interplay which makes some of these works challenge even The Seasons as the most approachable Vivaldi.

Giuliano Carmignola has recorded one movement from RV529 before, with Viktoria Mullova, the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Andrea Marcon (DG Archiv 4796444, now download only). That’s the only work which appears on both albums and there are six more fine performances on the DG, which can be downloaded inexpensively from Presto, complete with pdf booklet. The download is of the de luxe edition, with a bonus concerto in addition to the album of which Michael Cookson wrote: ‘Mullova and Carmignola provide one of the most consummate displays of period instrument playing that I have heard.’ Why not go for both that and the new Harmonia Mundi? Though ‘only’ at 88.2, the 24-bit recording of the latter is excellent. The physical disc is 16-bit only: no SACD.

There are still more Double and Triple Concertos on a mid-price album: the performers in RV584, 551, 531, 552, 561 and the concerto which gives the album its title, Il Proteo o sia il mundo al rovescio, RV544, are Il Giardino Armonico directed by Giovanni Antonini, with Christophe Coin (cello) in some of the works. (Warner Teldec Das Alte Werk 9029593160, replacing 2564642309, which also remains available).

The new Seasons recording from Concerto Köln may not change matters with regard to period performances but the new Chandos is well worth considering: a modern-instrument version which doesn’t stray too far from the best principles of period practice. My overall preference for performances of this kind remains with Loveday and Marriner, an attractive version costing less than the Chandos, but the addition of Roxanna Panufnik’s Seasons adds to the appeal of the new recording. The quality of the playing and the very good 24-bit or SACD sound also add to the attraction.

Brian Wilson






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