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CD Review

Antonio Vivaldi

Concerti for Winds & Strings

  • Concerto for Strings in G minor, RV 156
  • Concerto for Oboe in C Major, RV 449
  • Concerto for Bassoon in F Major, RV 485
  • Concerto for Strings in B Flat Major, RV 166
  • Concerto for Violin, 2 Recorders & 2 Oboes in G minor "per l'orchestra di Dresda," RV 577 *
  • Concerto for Recorder in C Major, RV 444
  • Concerto for 2 Violins & 2 Cellos in G Major, RV 575 **
Peter Holtslag & * Catherine Latham, recorders
Paul Goodwin & * Lorraine Wood, oboes
Alberto Grazzi, bassoon
Peter Hanson & ** Walter Reiter, violins
Jane Coe & David Watkin, cellos
The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock
Archiv 445839-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Vivid.

In my case, Vivaldi suffered from a notorious remark, which I've heard attributed variously to Malipiero, Dallapiccola, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, to wit: "Vivaldi did not write 3,000 concerti. He wrote the same concerto 3,000 times." Since I tend to believe clever people, I gave Vivaldi a fairly wide berth and usually listened to chance encounters with half an ear. In short, I subscribed to the Signature Theory of Great Art, which tells me the worth of a piece by looking at who wrote it. Curiously, the Vivaldi I had heard before I read that wicked bon mot I always excepted from its sting: "Winter" from The Four Seasons and the sublime Gloria in D Major, the latter one of the first LPS I bought with my own money (Scherchen on Westminster). At any rate, the remark saved me from having to listen to 3,000 concerti. It simplified considerably my listening life.

Of course, Vivaldi didn't suffer; I did. For some reason, I began buying the HIP Vivaldi recordings of Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus (I guess because I was a big Harnoncourt fan and picked up just about everything he released) and, later, the modern-instrument/reduced-forces ones of Claudio Scimone and I Solisti Veneti. Harnoncourt's readings I liked a great deal, but until my ears became accustomed to the sound of Baroque instrument copies, the concerti struck me more as curiosities. Scimone, however, transformed Vivaldi for me into a wonderful composer in his own right.

My turnabout may also have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to entire works. Instead of The Four Seasons or any of its constituent concerti, I listened to the complete Il Cimento, of which those four concerti make up a third. I heard the twelve concerti of La Stravaganza as well as the Op. 3 set, L'Estro Armonico. Each time I felt I listened to a master. If the bon mot had point, you would have expected sheer boredom to overcome me, but the music only whetted my eagerness to hear more. I admit the emotions stirred didn't range as widely or as deeply as Bach or Handel (very little music manages to do this, incidentally), but within his "square inch of ivory," Vivaldi achieved an amazing variety of idea and texture – more than enough to convince me that a wickedly clever remark wasn't necessarily true. After all, Bach himself learned from Vivaldi. I also believe in general our culture tends to turn art into religion – art as windows to the divine – as if enjoyment (or even joy) without the obligation of uplift didn't really count in itself. I would say many people feel as if art only should redeem our miserable souls, which of course downplays enjoyment in favor of salvation. By the way, this attitude toward music in particular comes from fairly recent times, when we have problems believing in heaven, but not in Bach. Furthermore, invention – the ability to come up with first-rate musical ideas – tends to be underrated as a musical skill, in favor of the ability to spin gold from straw. We abuse a wonderful melodist and original harmonic thinker like Grieg and exalt Beethoven. I'm not saying we shouldn't exalt Beethoven, but his basic ideas often seem less important than what he does with them. On the other hand, Grieg's ideas usually make the piece. To me, Vivaldi's music shares this trait with Grieg's, and I consider them both supreme miniaturists. Although one finds in Vivaldi formal experimentation, the form itself barely rises above serviceable. For the most part, the composer found something early that suited him and stuck with it, as opposed to Bach's compulsion to stretch and raise form to its limit or to Handel's magisterial freedom in inventing new forms.

The trick of a miscellaneous Vivaldi program like the one here lies, it seems to me, in how well the pieces contrast. To a large extent, the different sounds of the ensemble in just about every piece go a long way to putting off any impression of sameness. Even a big Vivaldi fan like me found all of the composer's bassoon concerti, for example, hard to take at one go. A cursory glance at the forces involved – note especially the concerti for violin, two recorders, and two oboes and for two violins and two cellos (in the latter case, Vivaldi seems to mean exactly what he says) – leads one to expect a virtuoso orchestrator, which subsequent hearing confirms. The miracle of the orchestration to me is that Vivaldi seems not to take notice (other than writing in their "comfortable" keys) of the different natures of the solo instruments. To my ear, he keeps writing for violin, no matter what the instrument specified – a matter of finger-work and Baroque violin riffs, I suppose. Nevertheless, it sounds absolutely idiomatic. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me so much when I consider that Chuck Berry's guitar playing essentially adapts r&b piano.

The program starts with a jump – the g-minor string concerto, an attractive work which has received a number of recordings. Vivaldi attracts me mainly because of the powerful rhythmic drive, often stemming from vigorous, full-arm bowing. Think of the first forte in The Four Seasons's "Winter." Instead of Beethoven's music "from the heart to the heart," we get music from the body to the body. Trevor Pinnock – to me, one of the best musicians of our time, and not just as a performer of Baroque music – leads his players in a light and springing reading. The antiphonal calls between first and second violins in the opening and final movements not only sound through the texture, with everybody sawing or banging away, but acquire urgency. The texture remains clear as water and everybody is beautifully in tune. For both string concerti, this has become my favorite recording, replacing I Musici and Scimone's band.

In contrast to the grave press of the string concerto, the oboe concerto comes over like lambs in spring. The continuo sounds like an interesting combination of cello, theorbo (a giant lute with extra strings; in this recording, it sounds like a small harp), and organ – whether a performer's liberty or specified by Vivaldi I have no idea. Paul Goodwin has mastered the baroque oboe to such an extent, it sounds as in tune and smooth-toned as a modern one. It's one more indication of how high original-instrument performance and instrument-making has risen since the days when players squawked with instruments taken directly from the museum case or from the workshop from some furniture maker who wanted to try his hand at old instruments. Goodwin does so well, in fact, that I began to wonder about the need for a baroque oboe at all, since I indeed couldn't tell the difference.

Soloists are uniformly excellent. Bassoonist Alberto Grazzi swaggers and croons his way through his concerto, the first movement of which is filled with odd little stops and slowdowns – a Vivaldian fingerprint, especially when he wants to suggest the supernatural. I know little of the history of the work to pronounce definitively, however. I can, on the other hand, say that these points in the score definitely grab one's attention, and they're difficult to bring off with breaking down altogether. Pinnock and his players never drop the thread. Peter Holtslag and his sopranino recorder do their best to imitate birds, tossing off warbles and chirrs, clear and distinct as unset diamonds. The concerto "per l'orchestra di Dresda" will undoubtedly remind some of Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante. Vivaldi wrote it for the Dresden court orchestra, known for its large wind section. Vivaldi uses the winds not only to reinforce the sound, but also for color contrasts in solo work, playing off the string sound. The slow movement – like many of Vivaldi's – becomes a "chamber sonata," this time for solo oboe, with a continuo of harpsichord and bassoon. The concerto for two violins and two celli, on the other hand, works the same trick with an ensemble of strings and a continuo of harpsichord and theorbo. The second movement got most of my attention, notably for the odd harmonies created among the four soloists by dividing them up into two duets (violins vs. celli) and writing for each duo mostly in thirds. Strange little harmonic clashes occasionally break the surface.

The interpretive challenge to a conductor isn't as great in any of the works on this CD as in others by Vivaldi, particularly the sacred music and the operas. Nevertheless, every one of these works constitute entertainment of a very high order. If a movement doesn't get much beyond merry, sad, or angry, still one must choose a specific mode of emotion. After all, both S. J. Perelman and Andrew Dice Clay tell jokes. Pinnock steps elegantly, with a Handelian bounce in the fast movements and a legato in the slow movements that would credit even Janet Baker. In short, he and The English Concert rock.

Sound is Archiv's usual very good indeed.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz