Friday, June 24, 2005
I would be willing to bet pretty much anything that you do not own as many Vivaldi CDs as I do, and that positions me well to recommend a few for you that may not have come across your desk. Well, that and the fact that I am still too brain-dead to complete the real work I should be doing, and the PP is off at work, trying desperately to pay off his deficit of paid vacation.
So all further self-pity at my sad and lonely state must be pushed aside.
Please, for a little while, stop listening to The Four Seasons. Yes, there is some truly lovely stuff in there, but the man wrote something like 770 works, for goodness sake!
OK, here is a small bone for Quattro Stag fans. You might be wonder why those pieces get to have all the fun. Let’s go back to the first part of this century, when little of Vivaldi’s work was known, and Grove still said “Vivaldi in fact mistook the facility of an expert performer (and as such he had few rivals among contemporaries) for the creative faculty, which he possessed but in limited degree.” At that point Alceo Toni, a musician and journalist, made reductions of the four concerti for four-hand piano. That meant that in bourgeois households all over Italy, the quartet of concerti that would make Vivaldi famous could be played and played again.
If you are interested in hearing how the Four Seasons sounded in some of their earliest twentieth-century performances—and certainly the earliest recordings—listen to the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia from 1942, conducted by Bernardino Molinari, available on a very cheap CD from Aura. Set it next to your favorite contemporary recording of the piece, and behold the power of big string orchestras! Sixteen first violins! Big organ sound for the basso continuo! To our ears, accustomed as we are to the later-twentieth-century taste for pared down baroque, this is a trip back in time, a chance to remember another sensibility.
The finest performer of Vivaldi’s work for violin that I have heard is Andrew Manze, whose recording of the Opus 6 concertos and the “Cuckoo” Concerto (RV 335) rocks (with the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood, on Decca). There is nothing mechanical in his playing of the baroque violin: in his hands, the solo line is sexy and even jazzy.
But there are so many other wonderful concerti by Vivaldi, each with its own flavor and an enormous range of orchestral composition. What pleasure there is in moving from the traditional solo violin to the Concerto funebre (RV 579) for oboe, chalumeau (the jury is still out on exactly what that is), violin, three violas all’inglese and of course strings. Or a concerto for two recorders, two oboes, bassoon, two violins and the obligatory strings. I am personally fond of the bassoon concerti, and there is a great disc of six of them performed by I Musici under the direction of Klaus Thunemann on Philips, but that may be out of print, and there are lots others out there.
Bach knew something of the range of Vivaldi’s work, as he transcribed a number of his concerti for harpsichord and organ. I would give my left eye (if I could later get it back) to hear his concerto for four harpsichords and orchestra (BWV 1065), a rendition of Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins (RV 580). I understand there is a recording of it on Naxos, and I am still trying to track that down, but I would rather see it performed live, so I could see what all those keyboardists are doing. You can find a couple of the harpsichord transcriptions on Richard Egarr’s J. S. Bach: Per cembalo solo… (harmonia mundi).
The tradition of transcription continues today, and there are far worse introductions to the range of Vivaldi’s music that Yo-Yo Ma’s recent Vivaldi’s Cello, performed with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra directed by Ton Koopman. The disc includes pieces written for cello, but also transcriptions of familiar and unfamiliar works into cello pieces. There is the slow movement from the “Winter” concerto of the Four Seasons, and a concerto for viola d’amore (RV 540), but then also we find pieces from such big choral works as La fida ninfa and Juditha triumphans, not to mention the famous setting of the Gloria (RV 589). This whole collection is fabulous.
Do not miss the choral works, though, in their choral state. You might already know the RV 589 Gloria, but Vivaldi has another Gloria (RV 588), as well as a Magnificat (RV 611), Stabat Mater (RV 621), and a Beatus Vir (RV 597)—all of which could be yours in a (pardon me) glorious 2-disc performance on Philips by the John Alldis Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Vittorio Negri with numerous soloists. Still less known is Vivaldi’s bel canto work, the Serenata a tre, the tale of pastoral love among nymphs and a shepherd. It is available in a recording by René Clemencic and the Clemencic Consort on harmonia mundi.
And Naïve has undertaken a fine collection of recordings of all the Vivaldi works held in the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. When these over 300 works were discovered and catalogue in the 1920s and 1930s, and then gradually published over the course of the twentieth century, Vivaldi’s reputation could not but be revived. What an amazing thing to discover, that this composer who had long been dismissed as a mere virtuoso performer had in fact composed an enormous range of music for exciting combinations of instruments as well as for singers. Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso has been performed before, but have a listen to the new Naïve recording (performed by Les Eléments and the Ensemble Matheus under the direction of Jean-Christophe Spinosi). I can personally recommend the Naïve recording of Vivaldi’s Motets, featuring soloists Anke Herrmann and Laura Polverelli performing with the Academia Montis Regalis under the direction of Alessandro de Marchi.
And lest you think this work of recovery is complete, have a listen to the newly rediscovered and reconstructed Bajazet: Fabio Biondi did the hard work of recovering arias missing from the score, and his recording on Virgin Classics makes that work available to us all.
So the next time you think about Vivaldi, do not roll your eyes at how kitschified his work has become. Steer past the “baroque favorites” CDs and venture into this amazing trove of compositions.