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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
L’Eleganza Capricciosa
Violin Concerto in E minor, RV273 [12:25]
Violin Concerto in D minor, RV237 [8:32]
Violin Concerto in C major, RV177 [10:53]
Violin Concerto in D minor, RV242 [7:52]
Violin Concerto in D major, RV208 [15:58]
Cappella dell’Ospedale della PietÓ/Stefan Plewniak (violin)
rec. 2017, Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Zielonki, Poland
╦VOE RECORDS EVOE007 [56:39]

This selection of Vivaldi’s violin concertos takes the notion of historical authenticity beyond the realm of musical aesthetics and into that of gender politics by featuring an ensemble which comprises only female performers, just as the composer worked with at the Ospedale della PietÓ – the Venetian orphanage from which this group takes its name. It is curious, then, that the star solo role in all these concertos is reserved for Stefan Plewniak – perhaps he means to stand in for Vivaldi himself. But members of the original PietÓ certainly played the solo part in his violin concertos, and we know that he had a particularly high regard for one, Anna Maria, for whom he specifically wrote some pieces, as explored on a CPO disc by Federico Guglielmo and L’Arte dell’Arco (review). The scores of other violin concertos are also marked as composed for ‘Chiara’ and ‘Chiaretta’.

Be that as it may, Plewniak’s interpretations winningly bear out the comments in the CD’s booklet that Vivaldi ‘did not see any particular boundary between the genres: his instrumental music can be songlike, even grand and operatic, while we realise today just how many of his vocal works contain beautiful lines […] that suit the masterful bowing of an excellent violinist’. Plewniak is alive to the dramatic impact of the music, for example with the robust, even brusque, manner he and Cappella dell’Ospedale della PietÓ bring out of the opening ritornellos of RV273, RV237, and RV208 – the well-known ‘Grosso Mogul’ Concerto.

The operatic quality of some of the music is particularly evident in the slow movements in which Plewniak gracefully floats the, often simple, solo line with intense ardour as though it is a vocal melody seamlessly embellished with suitable fioritura. The florid solo part, like a musical arabesque, of the Largo of Il Grosso Mogul is actually written out by Vivaldi, and Plewniak gives it room to breathe as he eloquently spins the line. The ritornello of RV177 is also recognisable as using the same material as the Sinfonia to the opera L’Olimpiade, and here it is projected more with power than effervescent abandon as on some other recordings, but it certainly makes an arresting impression as it should.

That takes care of the ‘capricious’ quality of these works, identified in the disc’s title. Elegance is realised here too, not only through telling juxtapositions - such as the sweetness of tone which Plewniak elicits from his instrument in the solo violin episodes between the studier orchestral passages; or the Cappella’s light touch with the dotted rhythms of their accompaniment in the Largo of RV177 under the luminous solo line – but also by being superimposed upon more bustling textures, as in the sustained approach to the ritornello of RV242’s first movement over unsettled semiquavers in the bass line; the cadenza which Plewniak improvises at the end of that movement; or indeed his unfailingly absorbing and insightful way with those passages in which Vivaldi seems only to be note spinning on a superficial examination of the notes on the page.

These wonderful performances are on a par with the best historically informed exponents of this repertoire in recent years, such as Fabio Biondi, Giuliano Carmignola, Viktoria Mullova, or any of the soloists and ensembles who have appeared on the eight volumes of violin concertos which have so far been released in Na´ve’s ongoing Vivaldi Edition. Hopefully, between them all, they will be inspired to bring to light the many other, as yet, still unrecorded concertos by the composer.

Furthermore, it would surely be interesting and very welcome if Plewniak or others could move one step closer to re-creating the authentic atmosphere of these works. Now that the church of La PietÓ in Venice, attached to the Ospedale where Vivaldi worked, is open again after a restoration kept it closed for many years, perhaps it will be possible to record there. Admittedly the present church was rebuilt shortly after Vivaldi’s death, but it is thought that he advised on the layout and acoustics of the building eventually executed. It presumably encompasses more or less the same ground plan and dimensions as the church which Vivaldi knew, and it includes the same galleries high up, on either side of the nave, with grilles so that the female performers in them were effectively hidden from view, as we know happened from contemporary accounts.

That arrangement makes sense of the frequent antiphonal effects implied by Vivaldi’s scores – for example in the strings’ accompaniments in the slow movements of RV237 and RV242 in this recording where a little rhythmic motif is obsessively passed back and forth among the different parts. Taken together with the splendid resonance and bloom of the sound which comes about from the performance of music in such domed or vaulted marble churches as are common in Italy, increasingly I think the full expressive capacities of Vivaldi’s concertos can be best realised only in those physical conditions. These works then come to life and demonstrate that, what is perceived to be their lesser harmonic complexity compared with Bach or Handel, say, is more than compensated for by other compositional techniques which Vivaldi chose to exploit instead, revealing them to be the masterpieces they are. For now, this disc at least ably proves the vitality which inheres in the music itself.

Curtis Rogers

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