These dozen concerti by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) with a sonata and sinfonia on "Al Santo Sepolcro" from Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi are one package in a collection of 15 very lavishly-produced CD double sets from naïve, "Les Grands Millésimes de NAÎVE CLASSIQUE". In a box box measuring nearly 6" x over 9" with cardboard inlay and what the advertising material calls a "book" (actually a 32-page booklet in French and English), these are better than serviceable performances which form part of the monumental Vivaldi Edition project that began in 2000. Full of vigor, perception, clarity, sensitivity and vitality, the ensemble also significantly illuminates the essence of some well-known and other less familiar works by Vivaldi.
Vivaldi was an innovator; that's a fact not always acknowledged so readily as it might be. These CDs are full of examples of instrumental writing which broke new ground in the Venice of the start of the eighteenth century. The way in which the violin and organ interact in the central movement of the D minor concerto, RV541 [CD.2. tr.11], for example, was new. The exuberance of the solo passages for cello in the B Flat Major RV 547 [CD.1. tr.11] sound almost Beethovenian. Similarly the extent to which the violin is "encouraged" to stray well outside accepted melodic and rhythmic practice in the E Minor, RV 281 [CD.2 trs.1-3] has to be seen as pioneering at least; ingenious for sure. But at the same time, the playing here is never gratuitously eccentric.
Biondi surmises that Vivaldi wrote this way in aid of his teaching. There was a desire to promote and develop virtuosity – in his pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà As though the composer wished to draw attention to convention by absenting it from the works; and replacing it with styles and "devices" whose very newness emphasized the essence of the form and of Vivaldi's way of respecting it. Throughout, there is exceptional vigor (even for Vivaldi) and drive in the tutti (rarely unison) writing. Biondi directs Euoropa Galante extremely well to discern, internalize then express the structure (at the movement level) and also the sentencing within passages of each of the musical ideas.
More, he has a gift of being able to tie these together to present each concerto as a whole, however many individual and at times quite disparate worlds to which it may appeal… the sentimental, the celebratory, the sacred, the abandoned and so on. Not that you finish listening to these CDs with the feeling of variations on a theme. Rather, you are reminded of the pattern that a crack makes in the ice as it grows across a pond. The horizontal plane is the same: the lines outward of almost infinite diversity.
The playing, of course, is up to Biondi's and Europa Galante's usual high standards. As Biondi writes in his brief note, Vivaldi is – among many other things – unpredictable. Which means that the performance should be anything but tired and tested. It should be fresh, lively, surprising and imaginative. Not wayward. Which is just how this amiable collection of Vivaldi string works comes across. Recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.