Fabio Biondi and friends recorded The Four Seasons ten years ago for the Opus 111 label (OPS 56-9120). Today, Europa Galante's membership is almost completely different, and Biondi, with his major label contract, is almost famous. However, there are other reasons for this new recording.
Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'invenzione, the composer's Opus 8, was published in Amsterdam in 1725. (The English title is "The contest between harmony and invention".) That published edition has been the foundation of most performances and recordings since then. However, in the words of Biondi himself, "It is nothing new to anyone who knows and loves Vivaldi that there is a big difference between his music as published and as it appears in the manuscripts." The selling point of these CDs, then, is that the performances are based "on original manuscripts" housed in Manchester (The Four Seasons), Dresden (various concertos), and Turin (Concertos 8 through 11). Biondi's booklet note goes into some detail about the differences, both great and small, between the Amsterdam version and the manuscripts. Suffice it to say that everything from bowing and articulation to the notes themselves has been reexamined and rethought in preparation for this new recording. Biondi has engaged in subjectivity: confronted with two (or more) options, he has made decisions – assuredly informed ones – about how the music should be performed. Some of the decisions will sound strange to people who know this music well. (Some decisions will sound strange regardless of how well anyone knows this music!) And, it must be said, scholarship is not all: Biondi's decisions are perforce based, at least in part, on his personal taste.
The proof, however, is in the pudding. This time around, the pudding is delicious, if definitely provocative. Biondi and his musicians characterize the heck out of these scores, particularly The Four Seasons. If Harnoncourt's first traversal of Opus 8 made your hair stand on end (in every way possible), Biondi's new version will recapture that experience and double it. Dogs bark, guns shoot, and peasants tipsily stagger with almost frightening vividness here. Dynamic extremes and dramatic articulation are the order of the day. Biondi's liberal use of portamento will have you wondering who was passing the grappa at the recording sessions. Not even the customary order of the concertos is preserved. All members of Europa Galante play original instruments or modern copies, but I guess that goes without saying here.
Biondi's booklet notes are accompanied by an equally erudite essay by Toussaint Loviko, whose name is as adorably unusual as Biondi's musicianship is. The recording was made in Switzerland, and the engineering is superb, with a palpable sense of space and separation.
Even if you think you're "Four Seasoned" out, this new recording will surprise and entertain you. I recommend it highly, but not to traditionalists.
Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle