The best recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons
These four revolutionary violin concertos remain Vivaldi's most-loved works. Lucy Chaudhuri rounds up the best recordings of The Four Seasons to date.
Published in 1725 as part of Vivaldi’s Op. 8, The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni), transports listeners through the turning of the year. Each divided into three movements, these four concertos portray the drama (or peace) and scenes of spring, summer, autumn and winter in a pastoral setting. To help set these scenes, sonnets (possibly composed by Vivaldi himself) serve as a preface for each concerto, introducing and reflecting the music that unfolds.
We named Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as one of the best pieces of violin music ever.
All four concertos are widely familiar today and regularly appear in popular culture, from films and TV to choreographed sport such as ice skating. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of recordings. In chronological order, here are our recommendations of the freshest interpretations and pioneering performances.
The best recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons
Iona Brown (violin), Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner
Philips 9500 7 17 (1979)
Iona Brown joined the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1964. Over the next decade, she would work her way to the top of the orchestra, reaching principal soloist and director by 1974. Though she left the orchestra in 1980, just a year after this recording was released, she continued collaborating with them. Her Four Seasons is arguably her finest achievement on disc.
Often thought of as the first definitive recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Iona Brown and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields display an exceptional lightness of touch throughout that makes the performance compelling yet easy to listen to. This is not to say that it lacks drama – far from it, in fact, as Brown and Marriner expertly capture the dynamic highs and lows of each season.
Nigel Kennedy (violin), English Chamber Orchestra
Warner Classics 5562532 (1989)
It comes as no surprise that Nigel Kennedy’s record-breaking disc makes this list. Released in 1989, Kennedy’s recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons spent nearly two years at the top of the UK classical album chart and sold over 2 million copies, making it the best-selling classical recording at the time.
We named Nigel Kennedy one of best rule-breaking musicians
Essential listening for all Vivaldi enthusiasts, few recordings display the same level of vivacity as this collaboration between Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra – the matchless energy of their full-throttle performance doesn’t mean lack of precision, however. Kennedy has since released The New Four Seasons (2015), a modern interpretation of the concertos, infused with jazz as well as the violinist’s love for Jimi Hendrix.
Janine Jansen, Candida Thompson, Henk Rubingh (violin), Julian Rachlin (viola), Maarten Jansen (cello), Stacey Watton (bass), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo), Jan Jansen (organ, harpsichord)
Decca 475 6188 (2004)
Dutch violinist Janine Jansen offers an intimate Four Seasons performance, reducing a traditional orchestra accompaniment down to single instruments. This chamber-sized ensemble, including Jansen’s brother and father on cello and harpsichord respectively, is expressive and soloistic in its own right while still allowing Jansen to shine as the work’s star.
‘Jansen possesses the ideal combination of intonational purity and tonal allure,’ wrote BBC Music Magazine’s reviewer Julian Haylock, ‘and is beguilingly responsive to the music’s shifting moods, creating the uncanny impression of a series of vividly drawn characters passing before our eyes as we listen.’
La Serenissima/Adrian Chandler (violin)
Avie Records AV 2344 (2015)
Standing out from the ocean of Four Seasons recordings is a challenge, but Adrian Chandler brings originality to the table by creating his own new edition of the concertos from Vivaldi’s rare surviving source material. Performing with period instrument ensemble, La Serenissima, Chandler milks his authority as soloist and director with delightful, dramatic rubato and with precision second only to Nigel Kennedy.
‘The resulting freshness incinerates the cobwebs of familiarity in the heat of La Serenissima’s proselytising zeal,’ wrote BBC Music Magazine’s Paul Riley. ‘This fresh approach grows out of the work itself, and as a period instrument ensemble La Serenissima fully understands what an imaginative continuo section can bring to the table.’
Rachel Podger (violin); Brecon Baroque
Channel Classics CCS SA 40318 (2018)
Like Jansen, Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons recording is an intimate experience, with single string accompaniment from Brecon Baroque. Despite its size, the chamber ensemble achieves a rich, weighty sound that converses beautifully with Podger’s light, airy solo lines. This recording is evocative and colourful, embodying Vivaldi’s music on its own terms.
‘Part of the freshness stems from the interaction between Podger and her one-to-a-part ensemble. Indeed, whether in Spring’s multi-beaked violin twitterings or the viola barking of the slow movement’s dog, it’s striking just how many soloistic opportunities Vivaldi offers the ensemble,’wrote Paul Riley.
Two unusual recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons
Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi The Four Seasons
Daniel Hope (violin), Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin/André de Ridder
DG 4792777 (2014)
Despite discarding ‘three quarters’ of the music, this recomposed Four Seasons retains the shape, texture and dynamics of Vivaldi, looping the concertos’ most famous moments to meet Richter’s minimalist composition style. The result is fresh and exciting but crucially still recognisable as Vivaldi’s work.
A Violin for All Seasons
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons; Roxana Panufnik: Four World Seasons
Tasmin Little (violin), Graham Bradshaw (Tibetan singing bowl), David Wright (harpsichord), BBC Symphony Orchestra
Chandos CHSA5175 (2016)
Violinist Tasmin Little’s vibrant recording of The Four Seasons is accompanied on disc by British composer Roxanna Panufnik’s Four World Seasons, a piece written specially for her. Panufnik transports listeners through space as well as time in a work that is divided into four movements, ‘Autumn in Albania’, ‘Tibetan Winter’, ‘Spring in Japan’ and ‘Indian Summer’, and includes the use of a Tibetan singing bowl.
Click here for four more unusual interpretations of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons