'This is easily the most thoroughly produced Vivaldi lute record yet to come my way... played with style, wit and grace. The digital recording is warmly sympathetic. Best of the Month' (Hi Fi News)
'The playing is first class – an hour of sheer pleasure.' (Classical Guitar)
'The performances are 'authentic' in the best meaning of the word, and the recorded sound is everywhere first rate' (Gramophone)
'Excellent' (International Record Review)
'Pure Venetian magic' (Amazon.co.uk)
In the last forty years Vivaldi’s music has suddenly become enormously popular. Recorded versions of Le Quattro Stagione (‘The Four Seasons’) now outnumber and outsell some of the most hackneyed items of the Romantic orchestral repertory. Yet Vivaldi’s rehabilitation has been achieved largely in isolation. With the partial exception of Albinoni, it has not been accompanied by a general revival of Vivaldi’s important Italian contemporaries. The works of composers like Durante, Astorga and Galuppi, as popular if not more popular than Vivaldi in their day, still linger on the library shelves in obscurity. Gratifying as it is to see the music of a Baroque composer enter the American pop charts, Vivaldi’s modern popularity does not make it easy for us to understand his music, since we are still unfamiliar with its context. Furthermore, his career as a teacher in a Venetian ospedale, and his strong links with northern Europe, seem to have produced a body of instrumental music that is exceptional for an Italian composer of the time. No one else in Italy wrote for instruments like the chalumeau, the clarinet, the bassoon, the horn and the viola d’amore. Vivaldi’s concertos and trios using plucked instruments are particularly difficult in this respect since we know so little about why or when they were written. In the case of the lute works we do not know for sure what type of instrument Vivaldi intended, and there is no body of comparable contemporary Italian lute music to help us make an educated guess.
To take the last point first, Vivaldi’s four works for leuto are all written in a similar way, with a largely single-line part notated in the treble clef. It is an idiom that has much more in common with mandolin music and with violin-writing than the full polyphonic texture characteristic of northern European Baroque lute music. The parts are commonly played today as they stand on the guitar or the Renaissance lute, which involves the assumption that the treble clef should be read an octave lower, as in modern guitar music. But there is little evidence for such a usage in Vivaldi’s time except in concerted music for the large long-necked archlute, where solo passages in the treble clef alternate with passages of figured bass. The fact that three of Vivaldi’s lute works—the two trios and the D major concerto—have passages with the lute doubling the violins instead of the bass makes it unlikely that they were intended for the archlute.
The fact that the manuscripts of these three lute works contain a dedication to the Bohemian nobleman Count Johann Joseph von Wrtby (1669–1734) has led to the notion gaining ground that they were intended for the form of lute universal in Germany and Austria at the time, the eleven- or thirteen-course Baroque lute. But German Baroque lute music, exemplified by the works of composers like Weiss and Kohaut, has a full texture, with the melody supported by full chords and a continuous bass line. It is always written in tablature. Of course it is possible that Vivaldi, unfamiliar with German lute music, just sketched out the parts, leaving the Count or someone working for him to adapt them for the instrument. But there is no evidence that this happened and it is simpler to believe that he intended what he wrote, particularly as there is a contemporary Italian instrument that fits the music as it stands. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods there were gut-strung soprano members of the lute family popular in Italy. Several manuscripts from the early eighteenth century show that its music was written in staff notation in the treble clef. The paintings of Vivaldi’s Venetian contemporary Pietro Longhi show that instruments of that sort were common in the city at the time. It is true that other musical sources call gut-strung soprano lutes ‘mandore’, ‘mandola’ or ‘mandolino’, but it is quite possible that Vivaldi’s terminology was deliberately or unintentionally ambiguous, and that Count Wrtby played the Italian instrument. To be honest, there is just not enough evidence to go round to decide the question with certainty, but we feel that the identification of Vivaldi’s leuto with the gut-strung soprano lute played with the fingers, and his mandolino with a similar instrument played with a plectrum, offers the best scholarly and practical solution to a difficult problem.
The work that seems to be an exception is the Double Concerto in D minor for viola d’amore and lute. We know that it was written for a concert given at Vivaldi’s ospedale, the Pietà, on 21 March 1740, in honour of the visiting Prince-Elector of Saxony, Frederick Christian. That Vivaldi’s other plucked-instrument works are much earlier is suggested by the fact that the D minor Concerto is much more galant than them; we know of course that Count Wrtby died in 1734. The autograph manuscript, now at Dresden, instructs the lutenist to play along with the bass in the tutti sections, which suggests that in this instance the instrument was at the lower octave. Perhaps a German lutenist accompanying the Prince played it; the work certainly sounds best with the lute below the viola d’amore, particularly in the slow movement, and Paul O’Dette plays it on a Baroque lute on this recording.
The one aspect of the performances on this recording that remains to be discussed is the use of organ continuo instead of the more normal harpsichord. The organ seems to have been used in Vivaldi’s instrumental music much more commonly than has been realized. Many of them, both sonatas and concertos, were undoubtedly written for performance in the chapel at the Pietà; a recently discovered sonata for violin, oboe and chalumeau has an elaborate written-out part for organ. On the practical level, the harpsichord is a disagreeably jangling accompaniment for the lute, while organ and lute had been constant companions on continuo lines ever since Monteverdi’s time.
Vivaldi’s music, delightfully witty and full of pathos by turns, needs no garrulous guide, nor does its composer need to be defended from the absurd charge that he wrote the same concerto six hundred times. It is true that Vivaldi’s music is sometimes extraordinarily simple compared with the work of his northern European contemporaries, but it is a simplicity of violent and colourful contrasts characteristic of Venetian art—akin to the Commedia dell’ arte plays of Goldoni or the vigorous genre paintings of Longhi.
Peter Holman © 1985