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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Le Quattro Stagioni (1725)
Concerto No 1 in E, La Primavera – Spring, Op 8/1, RV269 [9:01]
Concerto No 2 in G minor, L’Estate – Summer, Op 8/2, RV315 [9:45]
Concerto No 3 in F, L’Autunno – Autumn, Op 8/3, RV293 [9:59]
Concerto No 4 in F minor, L’Inverno – Winter, Op  8/4, RV297 [7:45]
Giovanni Antonio GUIDO (ca. 1675-1729)
Scherzi Armonici sopra le Quattro Stagioni Dell’Anno (ca. 1717)
Le Printemps [12:03]
L’Este [17:15]
L’Automne [16:41]
L’Hyver [11:05]
Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal/Andrés Gabetta (violin)
rec. 18 and 23 December 2020, Château de Versailles
DVD Bonus: Complete Le Quattro Stagioni & Guido excerpts

Any new recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has to have a USP but this little box from Versailles has a rather good one, comparing Vivaldi’s uber-famous international hit with a similarly conceived but entirely different musical view on the seasons of the year by his much less well-known contemporary Giovanni Guido.

Recorded in the opulent Galerie de Glaces in the palace of Versailles, these are bright and lively sounding performances. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is taken at a brisk pace, coming in over its entirety at just over 36 minutes, which is compact even by current HIP standards. Time is spent over Vivaldi’s more expansive descriptions, such as the languorous parts of Summer, but there is maximum contrast, and fast sections and movements are taken very fast indeed. Recorders are used here and there and there is some arguably gimmicky chirruping in Spring, but everything is very entertaining and effective in terms of musical descriptiveness. Storms are threatening and Autumn play is very playful indeed. Wind instruments are included here as the version used is the one made for the Dresden court with its excellent players, though the wind section here lacks bassoons and is not as complete and ‘present’ as I’ve heard elsewhere. Horns and oboes pop up discreetly, but there is quite an oboe solo in the Adagio molto of Autumn. Everyone has their own way of doing this work, but the whole performance has plenty of colour contrast and rhythmic oomph despite not turning into quite the Handelian extravaganza it can become. The harpsichord is well balanced in the recorded mix, being audible but not forwardly balanced so that it blends. You will rarely hear as chilly a Winter as here. The central Largo is arguably a touch too fast, though if we’re still stamping our feet in the cold then this works well enough. Andrés Gabetta plays a 1727 Venetian Pietro Guarneri violin and his solos are virtuoso indeed. Despite minor reservations this is, in any case, by no means a run-of-the-mill Four Seasons. The descriptive sonnets for this work are printed in the booklet.

This programme asks the question, what if Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed in Paris at the Concert Spirituel in 1728, had preceded or been preceded by those of Giovanni Antonio Guido, and who inspired whom? Guido was a leading violinist in Paris orchestras during the reign of Louis XIV, and was Master of Music of the Regent Philippe D'Orléans, but a lack of documentation means that relatively little is known about his life. Comparisons between the two show how Vivaldi's concertos are aimed more at virtuosity, while Guido’s music combines French tastes of poise and dignity with Italianate features. The booklet notes for this release point towards Cicero’s argument that “the natural (veritas) was superior to man’s creation (imitationem)”, and Vivaldi's naturalism is therefore placed alongside Guido’s homage to each season, with displays of affects that would have been appreciated by the French court, while not making its delicate denizens drop their handkerchiefs in shock at anything too daring..

As a central member of Parisian artistic life, Guido became part of the circle of a financier, Pierre Crozat, and is known to have given concerts at his residence. Between 1713 and 1716, Crozat redecorated his dining room and commissioned Watteau to paint four paintings on the theme of the seasons. It is a possibility that this was the genesis of Guido’s Scherzi armonici sopra le Quattro stagioni dell'anno. As with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons there are written texts, and this music is based on four anonymous poems: Les Caractères des Saisons. Each ‘season’ has multiple movements, therefore resembling a French suite rather than a concerto. There are some of those chirruping effects again in Spring, but the performance avoids becoming a toy symphony and extraneous sounds are kept to a tasteful minimum. Rustic charm is however in evidence with what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy in the Danse des Moissonneurs in Summer, and while Guido’s Seasons is a more extensive and predictable entertainment there is plenty of fun to be had amongst the more formal dances. Summer’s final Orage is much less stormy than Vivaldi’s, but while Autumn ends with a fairly typical La Chasse the hunt is interrupted by real darkness and drama with the death of the ‘terrified stag’. It is certainly interesting to hear similarities between Vivaldi and Guido in their descriptions of the cold of Winter, with stabbing icy chords and the kinds of musical symbolism shared by the likes of Purcell in his Cold Genius aria.

The DVD that accompanies these two CDs is a video recording of the complete Vivaldi Four Seasons, and a presumably cut version of the Giovanni Guido, the video performance being around 20 minutes shorter than the CD version. Production standards are high for the video, with lots of slow tracking, detail and close-ups, and a good feel of the venue. My only criticism is of the maniac who decided it would be a good idea to bring back Vivaldi to go along with the credits at the end, killing the effect of Guido’s conclusion stone dead.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this recording to start with, but in the end I warmed to its ‘live’ feel. The recorded balance is rather crisp and bright, but this effect will depend on your playback equipment and shouldn’t be overly problematic. The performances have a feeling of risk about them, and the whole thing isn’t as polished as the mirrors in that great hall of a venue. This has its own attractiveness, and while the Vivaldi won’t be everyone’s favourite it is at least good to have a recording of the less frequently heard Dresden version with winds. Giovanni Guido’s Scherzi Armonici sopra le Quattro Stagioni Dell’Anno is never going to knock Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from its impregnable perch of popularity, but it has enough excellent and characterful music for it to stand on its own feet. This is by no means its only recording, but for sheer energy and verve it is hard to beat. Caroline Balding and The Band of Instruments on the Divine Art label (review) is very good, but also more well-mannered and lacking the daring and wealth of variety in colour we hear from Versailles. A more direct competitor is on the CPO label, with both an excellent and more wind-weighted performance of the Dresden version of the Vivaldi Four Seasons and some energetic highlights of the Guido from Federico Guglielmo and L’Arte dell’Arco (review). It’s a shame their recording of the Scherzi Armonici is not more complete, but if your appetite for the work has been stimulated by this recording in the past then you now know where to find more.

Dominy Clements

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