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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons, op. 8 nos. 1-4 (1725) [36:10]
Violin Concerto in D major, RV208, Grosso Mogul [14:52]
Violin Concerto in A major, RV335, The Cuckow [9:27]
Elizabeth Wallfisch (baroque violin)
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra/Paul Dyer
rec. 1996, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 481 2515 [60:29] 

Concerto for strings in G minor, RV156 [5:57]
The Four Seasons, op. 8 nos. 1-2 (1725) [20:16]
Sinfonia al santo sepolcro in B minor, RV169 [4:43]
The Four Seasons, op. 8 nos. 3-4 (1725) [19:39]
Shunske Sato (violin)
Concerto Köln
rec. 2016 live, Kempen, Germany
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300829BC [51:04]

Please note that Presto has the catalogue number for the ABC wrong: they have it as 4812415

The Four Seasons
is the first four concertos of a set of twelve, The contest between harmony and invention. It demonstrates that the magic of successful music is the outcome of the fusion between the discipline of technique and structure on the one hand and the quality of imagination on the other. The key factor in the popularity of The Four Seasons is, I think, its having a very specific programme directed by Vivaldi’s imagination. This review will therefore consider how successfully the recordings convey that programme. In recent years, the fashion has been for a soloist/director presentation. That is not quite so in either of these CDs, both of which present the work on period instruments. Elizabeth Wallfisch is simply the soloist, Shunske Sato the soloist and leader, but not director, of the orchestra. This means that both have interpretative freedom as soloists because they are not also directors. Concerto Köln, who have experience of recording without a director, have a collective role in orchestral interpretive decisions, a ‘spontaneous improvisatory approach’ the booklet says.

Spring arrives in bright and lively fashion from Concerto Köln. The birdsong, with Shunske Sato and a CK first violin and second violin rapaciously feeding off one another, is even perkier. I like the contrast of the winds’ soft smoothness on the streams from CK (tr. 4, 1:14), even suggesting balminess. The storm is sudden and vigorous, the soloist like a bird turned frantic. The opening ritornello now has a crestfallen face but the solo birds regroup; you can almost hear them drying off their feathers and Sato’s final solo is very individual, moulding the line to his will. It has all been an adventure. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra also makes a very sprightly start and the birds chirrup clearly, without sounding quite as individual as the Concerto Köln’s. The ABO’s winds on the streams similarly make less of a contrast; their storm is distinctive but not as shattering, and while I admire Elizabeth Wallfisch’s execution of her solo, it’s not as intensely dramatic as Sato’s. The birds soon resume their accustomed even temper.

In the slow movement, the violin soloist becomes a sleeping goatherd, sufficiently aided in his repose by the ripieno violins depicting the murmuring of leaves and plants to be oblivious of a solo viola’s loud barking dog. In the Concerto Köln account, the imaginative insight of Sato is a marvel, making the goatherd’s dreams fantastic, so extraordinary, though entirely stylistic, is his ornamentation, even if he does, I suggest, rely on our being familiar with Vivaldi’s basic melody. The supporting violins are suitably soporific and the viola dog distinct if rather polite. ABO’s dog is, less credibly, gentler, but Wallfisch’s goatherd dreams are more pleasant to live with than Sato’s. In an ardent outpouring, she sensitively ornaments Vivaldi’s melody without ever losing sight of it.

The issue with the Country Dance finale is how rustic is it? CK go for an idealized pastoral: it’s perky but also neat. Oddly for an Allegro the main impression is one of luxurious relaxation. It does become more vivacious when the solo violin takes centre stage, now as the chief country dancer giving a virtuoso display. This is also the closest we get to earthier pastoral, when a double-stopped drone (tr. 6, 1:50) evokes the bagpipe mentioned in the programme. But most memorable is the sheer joie de vivre of a seven-note motif from the soloist (1:57) heard eighteen times in successive sequences. Vivaldi is sometimes criticized for repetition but this is sheer elation. I do, however, prefer ABO’s truer Allegro, timing at 3:38 to CK’s 3:53. This gives more swing to the dancing and the bagpipe imitation drone in the viola and bass is clear from the start while Wallfisch’s solo has a grittier, skipping quality and more rhythmic edge than Sato’s.

The Concerto Köln starts Summer in stylish languor: long, yawning descents and tentative, sleepy, fumbling rises. Sato is in turn a cuckoo (tr. 7, 1:32), a turtledove (2:33) and the more delicate higher pitched goldfinch (3:08). Later Sato is a village boy, fearful of the impending storm, his whining fractious and insistent. All the strings now unleash this storm, but not quite in full power, which is right because at present this is the storm of the boy’s imagination. The marking is Allegro ma non molto. Timing at 5:46 to the ABO’s 4:17, the Concerto Köln take more note of the qualification. The ABO’s lethargy is daintier but less marked. Wallfisch’s birds, nevertheless, have strong and distinct personalities. The ABO’s imagined storm is unleashed in full power which means there isn’t a contrast come the real storm in the finale. Wallfisch’s boy whining is insistent if not as querulous as Sato’s.

In the second movement, the boy’s fear is eloquently passionate over the ripieno strings’ depiction of a swarm of flies and wasps. Sato’s intricate ornamentation, however, suggests that the boy is indulgently enjoying his imagination while the strings aren’t loud at first as they are that imagination. Wallfisch presents the movement more like a lament for which she fashions a comely aria with a modicum of ornamentation. The ABO’s accompaniment is appropriately temperate. It’s in the finale that the storm arrives for real. With the Concerto Köln it’s like hell being let loose with a spiteful bass and Sato in hysterics. Wallfisch and ABO present crisply with the descents in imitation between first and second violins clear and exhilarating. The difference is that between relishing from a safe vantage point and, with Sato and the Concerto Köln, being in the storm.

Autumn features a villagers’ dance and increasing inebriation. The Concerto Köln they start off sprucely, Sato the chief dancer with lively embellishments which soon become the outrageous antics of the chief drunkard slithering around while the other strings try to keep up but just keep falling over. Then they get a bit maudlin before falling asleep. They wake up as bright and bushy-tailed as they started. Now that is fantasy, or rather following the principle of ritornello. Wallfisch and the ABO play the movement in quite similar fashion but the emphasis on precision of playing gets a little in the way of character. Wallfisch does a more fastidious going to sleep than Sato.

The slow movement provides another picture of the drunkards asleep with eerie muted strings and from the Concerto Köln an almost mystical tranquillity except for the busy gurgling of lute and harpsichord, for me too busy but the score does ask for the harpsichord continuo to be arpeggiated. The ABO are more delicate here which emphasises the strings’ slow breathing expanse. The finale is a hunt with from CK plenty of rustic vigour, square and strutting. Sato as chief huntsman delivers ostentatious double stopping. Soon he’s also the beast in flight and seems even to be enjoying it as a fair contest with the strings as guns and dogs in ever hotter pursuit. The beast weakens and dies; the hunters’ strutting pomposity is boosted. ABO’s hunters are heavier, rougher, so Wallfisch as chief has a weighty authority. They don’t strut: their work is serious business. Wallfisch’s beast is equally determined to escape, but in vain. It’s all disciplined.

Winter is a compendium of special effects. Its opening from the Concerto Köln is soft and sinister. The soloist enters as a frightening wind delivered by Sato with malicious force. All stamp their feet in violent response. Later the grating ripieno violins’ semiquavers really do sound like teeth chattering, so percussive is the effect. ABO’s opening is loud, like a mass force arriving. There’s no dynamic indication in the score and this is just as effective as CK’s softness. Wallfisch is fierce as the frightening wind and the rest of the movement achieves a good balance between neat execution and inducing terror. Dynamic contrasts add to the artistry and create distance on occasion from the action. Scrupulous observation of the p marking for the teeth chattering doesn’t, however, work.

The slow movement brings the respite of a lovely melody with the soloist snugly indoors while pizzicato ripieno violins give us the rain spattering at a safe distance. Here’s the crux of your decision, if you want the Concerto Köln’s recording. Sato lets his imagination run far and wide with the melody virtually ditched. If you want to be able to appreciate that you need another recording. Timing at 1:23 to Sato’s 1:51, Wallfisch’s pace is quite fast for Largo but the melody is clear and glowing and the rain, pizzicato but marked f, is also clear, which it isn’t so much from the Concerto Köln. The finale’s first focus is ice: both soloist and strings take hesitant steps then tumble, but the soloist becomes the brave ice skater. The ice breaks, yet there’s the comforting change of a warm wind followed by the discomfiting one of a lot more wind. Sato and the Concerto Köln bring all this to you graphically. It’s sometimes unpleasant but realistic. Wallfisch and the ABO finesse everything overmuch. It doesn’t sound like the soloist is braving the ice: she’s just spinning around in agreeable sequences.

The CDs differ in the extra concertos they provide. The Berlin Classics CD begins with the Concerto for strings in G minor, RV156. Having a concerto without a soloist points up the spotlighting of the latter in The Four Seasons. It also makes a stimulating introduction to Vivaldi's sound world. The opening movement is built on a 14-note ground bass and to clarify this the Concerto Köln play it alone at the beginning. Then you appreciate the light but propulsive syncopation in the upper strings which kick against it. This is all very deftly done. The slow movement has the gleaming intensity of a gently instilled line and spicy dissonances owing to its chromaticism. In the finale the flourishes of demisemiquaver ascents are balanced by semiquaver descents. Here's playing that's both stunning and more than a little frightening in its precision and physicality. Placed between Summer and Autumn, the Sinfonia al santo sepolchro in B minor, RV169 offers a sensitive gateway to a cooler ambience. Chromaticism is a significant feature of its slow opening section but there's also a gradually revealed sombre melodic shape highlighted in the first violin, latterly stalked by the second. The Allegro ma poco second section is a somewhat severe, disciplined fugue yet one which also conjures an atmosphere of pathos.

The ABC disc adds two violin concertos after The Four Seasons. From the start of the Violin concerto in D major, RV208, Grosso mogul, there's lively interplay between the orchestral first and second violins in both the vigorous ascending and contrasting nonchalant descending passages. The soloist enters with a melee of double stopping and later a chain of triplets, all finely executed by Wallfisch, as is the cadenza which lasts 1:08. This is taken from the Schwein manuscript, as is the extremely ornate version of the slow movement and the 3:06 cadenza in the finale. The Violin concerto in A major, RV 335, The Cuckow sports an excellently crisp orchestral introduction from the ABO before Wallfisch starts her aerial manoeuvres, a kind of 18th century lark ascending. A bird call can be gleaned or maybe imagined within the virtuoso runs. The slow movement is a bit like that of The Four Seasons Winter in comeliness of shining melody but this one, being in E minor, also has a touch of melancholy. The finale is a mirage of semiquaver runs from soloist and orchestra with exotic fillings from a chamber organ which sounds like a vibraphone.

How to choose between the two CDs? The Berlin Classics has more flair and spontaneity, as you’d expect having been recorded live, but also an airier recording. The ABC Classics reissue is easier to live with for repeated listening and has more substantial additional concertos. It’s around three-quarters the cost of the Berlin Classics but a bargain pair of CDs with all the op. 8 concertos played by Europe Galante/Fabio Biondi (violin) recorded in 2000 (Erato 6025032) is about two-thirds the cost and for me more sensitive than either the ABC or Berlin. I write extensively about it as the comparator in my review of Salvatore Accardo’s The Four Seasons.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review (Berlin): Brian Wilson

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