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Hyperion Records

CDA66795 - Vivaldi: Viola d'amore concertos
CDA66795

Recording details: February 1995
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1995
Total duration: 67 minutes 11 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE

'Some of the most beguiling music he wrote. Mackintosh, on top form, acts her role with the utmost virtuosity, lovely tone, unimpeachable intonation, and fine style. The OAE rise to the occasion, making this splendidly engineered recording one to treasure' (Gramophone)

'A definitive account of Vivaldi's glorious viola d'amore concertos, one to revel in' (Gramophone)

Viola d'amore concertos
Allegro  [4'31]
Largo  [3'25]
Allegro  [3'26]
Allegro  [4'21]
Andante  [1'57]
Allegro  [3'49]
Largo  [4'09]
Allegro  [3'36]
Largo  [2'28]
Allegro  [3'45]
Allegro  [4'01]
Largo  [3'12]
Allegro  [3'32]
Allegro  [4'26]
Largo  [1'56]
Allegro  [3'44]
Allegro  [3'22]
Andante  [4'05]
Allegro  [3'26]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the son of a former baker who, by the time of Antonio’s birth, was a violinist at St Mark’s. Antonio received tuition on the violin and probably on related instruments such as the viola d’amore from his father for whom he occasionally deputized in church. His first official post was that of maestro di violino at the Pio Ospdale della Pietà, one of four orphanages in Venice which specialized in the musical training of its charges, and indeed thrived by their public performances which became grand social occasions.

It is known that in 1704 Vivaldi’s salary was increased to cover his teaching of the viole all’inglese – the generic term for instruments with sympathetic strings. The viola d’amore would have been included as one such in Vivaldi’s day; although previous incarnations featured a small viol-shaped body with metal strings, the viola d’amore of the eighteenth century was of the same approximate length as the modern-day viola. Usually there were fourteen strings, seven of which ran over the fingerboard and bridge, while the other seven ran under these and provided sympathetic resonances. Both version gave a sweeter sound than the violin, as John Evelyn noted in his diary in 1679:

I dind at the Master of the Mints with my wife, invited to heare Musique which was most exquisitely performed by 4 of the most renowned masters, DuPrue a Frenchman on the Lute, Signor Bartholomeo Ital: on the harpsichord: & Nicolao on the violin: but above all for its sweteness and novelty the Viol d’Amore of 5 wyre-strings, plaied on with a bow, being but an ordinary Violin, play’d on Lyra way by a German, than which I’d never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing …

The exact nature of the instrument that Evelyn heard is not clear, although it is likely not to have had sympathetic strings. However, the sheer range of the viola d’amore and the possibilities of quasi-polyphony and double stopping (‘lyra’-way, as it was known) would have been impressive enough. Vivaldi was by no means the only Baroque composer to delight in those sonorities peculiar to the instrument. Telemann, Biber and J S Bach all wrote for it, the last most famously in the bass arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seele’ from the St John Passion. However, Vivaldi’s six concertos remain the greatest achievement in the repertoire for their sheer scope of invention.

If one composer were to be credited with defining the Baroque concerto, it would surely be Vivaldi. His thorough exploration of ritornello form and almost constant use of the three-movement scheme laid the foundations for the maturity of the concerto in the late-Baroque period. These six concertos all conform to the fast–slow–fast programme and employ ritornello form in the outer movements. This form was the antecedent of the Classical rondo, and consisted of a series of statements of a subject (the ritornello) in various keys (tonic, dominant, relative major/minor) played by the full ensemble, interspersed with modulating episodes led by the soloist.

Common features of Vivaldi’s concertos include the appearance of the opening material at the beginning of the first solo episode, a procedure which foreshadowed the double exposition of the Classical concerto. In most ritornelli the music has a strong flavour of melody and bass, leaving the continuo to provide harmonic support. Harmonically, Vivaldi always errs on the uncluttered side, preferring tonics and dominants unless employing a sequence, in which case the progression known as the ‘cycle of fifths’ usually makes an appearance. Crucially, the tonic-dominant axis is always stressed – another way in which the Baroque form clearly foreshadows the Classical, although the to-ing and fro-ing of this music is as nothing compared to the complexity and eventual logic of the later genre.

It is by the unfettered variety of figuration and decoration that these concertos are distinguishable. In particular, the third movement of RV393 uses combinations of duplet and triplet quavers and semiquavers in solo passages of great invention. RV392 displays the special qualities of the viola d’amore by featuring chords and much arpeggio figuration – not quite as difficult as it sounds since the tuning of the instrument is usually adapted so that the open strings play a chord of the home key. In this concerto, the virtuosic nature of the solo part is highlighted by the fact that it does not play for much of the ritornello.

RV395 follows the conventional form but also includes ritornello statements in the relative of the dominant (first movement) and the subdominant (third movement). Like most of the middle movement, this one is through-composed (some are in binary form) and utilizes one basic thematic idea. RV394 is characterized by irregular phrase-lengths in all movements. The middle movement includes a particularly lush accompaniment for four-part strings. The full texture is also heard at the opening of RV396, as befits a major-key concerto, while the ritornello of the first movement receives greater development in the solo passages than in the other works. RV397 makes great use of the range of the viola d’amore and returns to the chordal writing encountered in earlier works.

Robert Rice © 1995

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