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Sixteen seasons A530
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Sixteen Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Le Quattro Stagione
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-70, arr. Leonid Desyatnikov, 1996-98)
Max Richter (b. 1966)
Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (2012)
Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Violin Concerto No 2 “The American Four Seasons” (2009)
Alessandro Quarta (violin: Vivaldi, Piazzolla)
Dino de Palma (violin: Richter, Glass)
Concerto Mediterraneo/Gianna Fratta
rec. 2021, Auditorium Santa Chiara, Foggia, Italy
ARCANA A530 [2 CDs: 149]

Given that the most recent of these works – the Richter – has been around for a decade, it’s a little surprising that this programme hasn’t appeared before on CD. Certainly the Vivaldi and Piazzolla have been paired before, but it appears that no one has thought to pair the Vivaldi with its recomposed version by Max Richter. Now Arcana has gone one better by filling two discs with Philip Glass’s second violin concerto.

The first disc begins with the biggest challenge. Given the huge number of recordings of Vivaldi’s four concertos, any new version has a mountain to climb to be even vaguely competitive with the listener’s favourites. In my case, it is that of Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (Naïve). The portents weren’t good for Concerto Mediterraneo when the disc started with a rather ho-hum Spring. It is taken very quickly – a full minute faster than Europa Galante – ploughing through Vivaldi’s writing without much subtlety. However, things improve dramatically with Summer, with so much more energy and character that it is hard to credit that it is the same group of players. The storm in the final movement is intense and hair-raising, almost as good as Biondi’s, which, I can assure you, is very high praise. Autumn is probably the weak link in the Biondi set, because of a very muted dynamic employed in the slow movement. Concerto Mediterraneo are better, though not up to the level of Amandine Beyer and Gli Incogniti (review), whose Autumn is the clear standout in their uneven set. Winter is taken very quickly, but unlike Spring, is strongly characterful, especially the first movement. I still hold dear Biondi’s biting and brittle performance of the Largo to be close to perfection. If we leave Spring aside, I enjoyed these performances. Across the four concertos, I was very impressed by the continuo section, which is given a very prominent role in many places, the chamber organ in the Summer storm providing an interesting extra colour.

Piazzolla wrote his four pieces over five years for his own band, not intending that they be played as a set. They have been arranged for numerous different instruments and combinations, perhaps the best known being for piano trio. This arrangement for violin and strings was made at the request of Gidon Kremer, who recorded them in 2006, coupled with the Vivaldi. While Piazzolla only referenced Vivaldi’s title, the arrangement adds direct quotations in Winter and Summer, done cleverly as the Italian summer storm rages briefly in the background of the Argentinian winter. I’m not a great fan of Kremer, as in general I find him a little too unemotional. In all four pieces, Gianna Fratta opts for slower tempos, and achieves a better result than Kremer, finding much more sultry yearning, which surely is what the tango is about. I have one other version of the arrangement, that of Candida Thompson and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta on Channel Classics, but it is far too smooth, missing the essential elements of this music. During the course of research for this review, I found another version, by the French combination of David Grimal and Les Dissonances, whose performance of Winter makes me think that theirs may be the best version yet. I will seek it out, but in the meantime, I can fully recommend Gianna Fratta and Concerto Mediterraneo.

Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed is an odd work. The composer has explained that he wanted to refresh the work as it had been turned into a cliché. His work is more than an arrangement, but much, much less than a recomposition. All movements are retained, and Vivaldi’s notes and tempos are mostly recognisable. What Richter has done is superimpose various 20th and 21st century styles - Glass, Nyman, Copland, for example - over the music, which might sound ghastly to some, but has been done with good taste, and for the most part successfully. This was my first listen to the results. I had been aware of it, but hadn’t heard its only other recording, that by Daniel Hope on DG (review). In that review, my colleague Dominy Clements expressed both pleasure and disappointment with the work. I would have to agree with him – there are some interesting combinations of styles, but does it refresh Vivaldi’s wonderful inventions? No, I think that is more successfully achieved by great performances of the original. If you have the Hope recording, you will find that this new one is not as good. It lacks a little character in places, and some of the movements just seem to be going through the motions. I was very surprised to find that the summer storm seems little more than a gentle shower, by contrast to the thrilling performance of the original on the other disc. This is not a Richter effect, as the Hope performance is much more … well, stormy.

The approach taken by Philip Glass to his “Four Seasons” work is very different to the others. He gave the seven movements generic titles - Prologue, Songs 1-3 and Movements 1-4 - and made no attempt to characterise them in terms of the seasons. Indeed, when Robert McDuffie, the violinist who commissioned and premiered the work, told Glass that the second movement made him think of “icy cold beauty”, the composer replied that he saw “gentle summer winds”. As much as I love much of Philip Glass’s music from the 1980s onwards, including the first violin concerto, this work leaves me very underwhelmed and disappointed. It runs for more than forty minutes – a very hard slog for this listener - and alternates movements for solo violin with those with orchestral accompaniment. The writing in the solo sections (Prologue and Songs) is most unappealing – I can’t think of anything further away from a song – and it isn’t much better in the other movements, where the orchestra gets the more attractive parts. Our reviewer of the premiere recording, featuring McDuffie as soloist, had a few good things to say about the music (as well as some negatives), reserving his major criticism for the soloist (review). He noted poor intonation, but having listened in full to the performance by Dino di Palma, and to parts of the McDuffie, I think the fault lies at the door of the music itself.

The two soloists were new names to me: I was mightily impressed by Alessandro Quarta in both his works, and while Dino di Palma made less of an impact, that may be put down to the music, rather than the performer. Concerto Mediterraneo was put together for this recording by Gianna Fratta and the two violinists during the course of the pandemic. I hope that this is not their only recording as they play very well. The booklet notes are very comprehensive, and even include an essay discussing the impact of climate change on the seasons. The sound quality is strikingly good.

The concept of Sixteen Seasons is a good one, but through a combination of the weakness of some of the music, and a few instances of less than distinctive performances, it can’t be judged a complete success. However, where it is good, it is very good.

David Barker

Published: November 16, 2022

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