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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerti per La PietÓ
Concerto per due violini in D major, RV 513 [15:03]
Concerto per violino “per la Signora Chiari” in D major, RV 222 [11:39]
Concerto per violin, organo e violoncello in C major, RV 554a [12:22]
Concerto per viola d’amore, liuto ed archi in D minor, RV 540 [12:37]
Concerto per archi ripieno in G minor, RV 152 [6:07]
Concerto per violin “per Anna Maria” in E flat major, RV 349 [13:15]
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi
First recordings of the edition of the Conservatorio of Venice (RV222 & 349)
rec. 2019. Villa San Fermo, Lonigo (Veneto), Italy
GLOSSA GCD923414 [71:04]

It used to be said that you knew you were getting old when policeman looked too young. For enthusiasts of Baroque music, I suggest an alternative proposition: ‘You know you are (getting?) old when you realize that the superb ensemble Europa Galante, directed by Fabio Biondi, has been recording for thirty years’. This new CD does, however, mark thirty years since Europa Galante’s magnificent recording of The Four Seasons and some other concerti by Vivaldi was released (on Opus 111) in 1990. It was, in the words of Pierre ╔lie Mamou’s booklet essay for this new CD, “the first historically-informed reading from an Italian ensemble”. That recording was characterized by, and much praised for, its energetic urgency and sense of the dramatic, as well as its lyrical power. Such virtues are still much in evidence on this anniversary disc, but the energetically athletic playing of the earlier recordings seems now to be tempered (with no loss) by a greater degree of relaxation. Mamou writes that “By adopting breathing which is slower, less tense, the performers have attained an interpretative balance”.

This new disc, as its title suggests, is a selection from the many concertos Vivaldi wrote for the female orchestra at the Ospedale della PietÓ in Venice (none of the chosen works are over-familiar), where Vivaldi was based – in various roles – from 1703-1740 (with a few short interruptions). The Ospedale’s Orchestra was made up of orphaned or abandoned girls who had been left to the care of the institution, and who had received a musical training there. Many contemporaries wrote in praise of the orchestra at the Ospedale della PietÓ: the French classical scholar, historian and music-lover, Charles de Brosses (1709-77) judged the orchestra under Vivaldi’s direction, which he heard when touring Italy in 1739-40, to be superior to that of the Paris Opera, for example (see his Lettres historiques et critiques sur l’Italie of 1798).

As noted above, the virtues so prominent in Europa Galante’s earlier recordings of Vivaldi are still much in evidence on this anniversary disc, but the energetically athletic playing of the earlier recordings seems now to be somewhat more relaxed. Fast movements like the Allegro molto which opens the Concerto for two violins in D major (RV 513) are as exciting as such movements have usually been when played by this fine ensemble, but without the very occasional sense of being rushed one felt on listening to some of the earlier recordings. The Andante which follows has an affecting tenderness, which such movements haven’t always had on previous recordings by Europa Galante. The differences are not great or startling, just relatively small matters of emphasis. I think. In his booklet essay, however, Mamou sees the ‘shift’ as a more radical matter, involving the abandonment of “those crazy twists and dazzling outbursts for which [Europa Galante] became famous”, in favour of “a kind of return to ‘classicism’, a hand stretched out in the warmth of sound and beauty towards I Musici and I Solisti Veneti, which used to be considered (too) Romantic”. This, I think, overstates the case: no one who has loved the earlier work of Biondi and his band need have any doubt that they will be similarly delighted by this new recording.

The distinctive musical vision of Europa Galante obviously owes much to Fabio Biondi; perhaps the perfection of ensemble which is typical of their work also owes more than a little to his direction. But the musicians making up Europa Galante are of uniformly accomplished technical ability and musical expressivity. This is an ensemble blessed with top-quality soloists, who could readily make careers as such, but who are willing to serve as part of that ensemble’s larger vision. Here the soloists include Biondi himself, playing a violin by Genaro Gagliano, Naples, 1766 – loaned by the Fondazione Salvatore Cicero and, in RV 540, a viola d’amore of 1758 by another Neapolitan luthier, Genario Vinnaccia – this instrument is apparently wholly unreconstructed. Other soloists include Biondi’s fellow violinist Andrea Rognoni, (playing an anonymous Italian instrument of c.1750); organist Paola Poncet (whose instrument is a 2010 copy by Roberto Chinellato, of a late 17th century German instrument); lutenist Giangiacomo Pinardi (who plays an instrument made, in 1990, by the Milanese luthier Stefano Solari, a copy of an earlier Italian instrument); and cellist Alessandro Andriani (playing another Neapolitan instrument, made by Ferdinando Gagliano in 1781). That so many of the string soloists are heard on Neapolitan instruments contributes to both the beauty and the unity of timbre and tone of so much of the music on this well-recorded album (the Recording Engineer, Fabio Framba deserves his share of praise too).

The Concerto for viola d’amore and lute in D minor (RV 540) has long been one of my favourites amongst all of Vivaldi’s concertos. It was written for a special concert at the PietÓ on March 21st 1740, in honour of Frederick II, Prince Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. The orchestra is directed to make extensive use of mutes in this work, producing an unusual sound, both intriguing and attractive. I struggle to find better words – perhaps ‘hazy’? – to describe this sound. Often in Vivaldi’s concertos written for two soloists there is a sense of competition, but that is not the case in RV 540, where the viola d’amore and the lute seem very much to be partners – at times they sound like two lovers talking. In listening to this concerto it is relevant to remember that it is a very late work – Vivaldi would be dead some 16 months after the concert of March 1740. It isn’t necessary (or perhaps appropriate) to hear in the concerto a kind of farewell to Venice (or even to life – as a few scholars have imagined), but I think it is undeniable that the work has a certain autumnal quality, a gravity and depth of emotion greater than that to be discovered in many of Vivaldi’s concertos. As such it benefits from the slightly more spacious phrasing in this ‘new’ style of Europa Galante’s. Interestingly this doesn’t necessarily result in markedly slower performances. The same two soloists (Biondi and Pinardi) recorded RV 540 in 2004 (issued on Virgin Classics 0946395146), with an earlier incarnation of Europa Galante (though many of the same musicians were involved). In the 2004 performance the timings of the three movements (Allegro – Largo – Allegro) were 4:44, 3:15 and 3:00; on this new disc the respective timings are 4:47, 3:36 and 3:23. In clock-terms the differences are not great, but this newer reading communicates a more thoughtful, more reflective attitude. As a result, the closing allegro is particularly beautiful. Vivaldi seems to have been attracted to the exploration of the possibilities of the viola d’amore, with its tuned strings and its sympathetic strings, as evidenced by the eight concertos he wrote for the instrument, six of them using the viola d’amore as the only solo instrument. A number of these, such as RV 392 and EV 394, are particularly attractive, but it is in its partnership with the lute in RV 540 that Vivaldi wrote most memorably for the instrument (especially in the beautiful cantabile melody given to it in the central Andante).

Elsewhere there are, naturally, many other delights to be experienced. In RV 513 the interlaced violins of Fabio Biondi and Andrea Rognoni feel like the aural equivalent of looking up at the complex tracery in the roof of a great cathedral. Biondi’s playing throughout RV 222, a violin concerto for “la Signora Chiara”, is a perfectly judged and very beautiful, incisive in places, reflective in others, richly various heard whole. His colleagues in Europa Galante work with him splendidly in accompaniment and dialogue. Much the same might be said of the performance of RV 349, another violin concerto, this time designated as “per Anna Maria”. The slow movement, marked ‘Grave’, especially as heard here, comprehensively gives the lie to those (they still exist!) who regard Vivaldi as a mere note-spinner whose music has little or no emotional content. Perhaps no one other than Vivaldi could have created such engaging music in a Concerto for violin, organ and cello as he does in RV 554a (Biondi has chosen to play the version of this concerto in which in which a cello replaces the oboe of RV 544). Vivaldi’s writing treats the organ with the greatest delicacy in this work, not least in the first movement. I could continue selecting or commenting on the particular joys to be found on this disc, but I will settle, instead, for the simple statement that if you love the music of Vivaldi you will surely want to hear it - and after hearing it you will surely be eager for further hearings.

Glyn Pursglove

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