Vivaldi: Concertos, RV 92, 108, 428, 435, 443, 444, 445

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COMPOSERS: Vivaldi
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Concertos, RV 92, 108, 428, 435, 443, 444, 445
PERFORMER: Dan Laurin (recorders)Bach Collegium Japan
CATALOGUE NO: CD-865
The trouble with being famous for just one thing is that the general public is apt to forget you ever achieved much else. Leonardo da Vinci has suffered from habitual Mona Lisa worship, Wordsworth from daffodils, Coleridge from pleasure domes and long grey beards, and Vivaldi from a severe seasonal affliction. Indeed, lined up in front of me is a CD of The Four Seasons arranged for four guitars. Add to this 20th-century problem Dallapiccola’s observation – given wider currency by Stravinsky – that Vivaldi composed the same form many times over and Vivaldi’s reputation is all but done for. The point is that Vivaldi, whose music is more identifiable than most, was nevertheless capable of an immense range of expressive nuances, of creating an evocative fantasy world both in his solos and tuttis, and was far more inventive in his technique than he is sometimes given credit for.

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Two discs of concertos, played by the Accademia I Filarmonici under its leader-soloist Alberto Martini, go some way towards illustrating these virtues. In the case of the ‘Dresden Concerti’, promisingly labelled Vol. 1, there is a high proportion of music seldom, if ever, previously recorded. That in itself is hardly a recommendation to any but the most ardent Vivaldi enthusiasts, but happily these concertos are richly endowed with the composer’s vintage hallmarks. The Concerto in C, RV 170, opens with a restless, purposeful idea that promises much, while the lyrical slow movement evokes nothing more vividly than a lazy afternoon trip down the Venetian canals in a gondola.

One of Vivaldi’s most beguiling cantabiles is contained in his B flat Concerto, RV 383. Vivaldi probably liked it, too, since it also features in the rhythmically vital work which opens his second printed set of concertos, La stravaganza. Two other concertos on the disc merit a mention for their expressive unison string writing (RV 314a), inventive solo violin passages and poetic elegance (RV 341). The Dresden association stems from Vivaldi’s virtuoso violin pupil and friend, Pisendel, who returned from Venice with many of Vivaldi’s concertos to perform as soloist and director of the Dresden court band.

The second disc of Vivaldi’s music played by the Accademia I Filarmonici consists of ten concertos for ripieno strings, ie without soloist. Most of the movements are on a smaller scale than those of his solo concertos, but there is a wealth of rhythmic and melodic ideas contained in them and a pleasing variety of form. The finale of the Concerto RV 114 is a chaconne, for example, while that of RV 151, Alla rustica is, as its name suggests, in the character of a rustic dance. Vivaldi wrote about forty such concertos for orchestra, some of which reveal a contrapuntal fluency too often denied him.

Though pre-eminently a composer for the violin, Vivaldi wrote for virtually every other known instrument of his time. The bassoon and the cello did particularly well, but the recorder, oboe and flute were not far behind. A new disc with Dan Laurin and the Bach Collegium Japan features seven concertos with either sopranino or treble recorder as solo instrument. Two of the pieces were, in fact, written expressly for transverse flute (RV 428 & 435), but perhaps we need not worry too much about that in the light of Laurin’s accomplished technique and sympathetic approach. These are stylish performances – albeit of lightweight compositions which never reach a level of interest comparable to Vivaldi’s violin concertos.

The other disc is a reissue of a 1979 recording of flute and recorder concertos, with soloist Frans Brüggen and members of the Orchestra of the 18th Century, then newly formed. Brüggen is more scrupulous than Laurin in placing Vivaldi’s chosen instrument at the service of the music, and I found his performances more interesting and responsive to detail.

Wind and strings come together in greater profusion and variety in a programme of six concertos featuring at one time or another solo violin, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and, in a single instance, two organs. This is just the stuff to show off the considerable talent, individually and corporately, of the US-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under conductor Nicholas McGegan. All but one of the concertos (RV 535 for two oboes) has a markedly occasional character. One of the best known, the Concerto in G minor, RV 577, was written for the court orchestra at Dresden (not included on the Dresden disc discussed earlier), while another, RV 552, was played by Vivaldi himself with the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, in 1740. These are sensitive, delicately wrought performances, light-footed in the bass, and airy in the upper parts. As such they are ideal to open up wider horizons on Vivaldi’s diverse talents.

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At the tail-end of the survey, I am left with something of a novelty – a recording of the ubiquitous Four Seasons played by the Tetra Guitar Quartet. Having once heard the Sixth Concerto of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico played by two violins, a clarinet, accordion, double bass and piano, I consider myself ready for anything. The Tetra Quartet, in fact, includes the Tenth Concerto of the same set in its programme. The performances are accomplished and lively but no substitute for the real thing. Great fun to play, though, I should imagine.