Rebecca Miles (recorder), Emma Murphy (recorder), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Colin Lawson (chalumeau), Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin), Katherine McGillivray (viola all'inglese), Jane Norman (viola all'inglese), James O'Donnell (harpsichord), James Johnstone (harpsichord), Lucy Howard (violin in tromba marina), Walter Reiter (violin in tromba marina)
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Vivaldi's multiple-instrument concertos!
The term 'con molti istromenti' (Vivaldi's own) refers not so much to the literal number of instruments involved as to their variety and unusual deployment. For an Italian concerto of the period to use wind instruments at all would be unusual; Vivaldi combines recorders, oboes, chalumeaux, horns and bassoons alongside a wide-ranging complement of strings, itself including viole all'inglese and the even more obscure violins 'in tromba marina'.
The composer's opportunity to write such works arose largely from the talented pool of girls available at the Pietà orphanage in Venice. These expert musicians would turn their hands to whatever Vivaldi could possibly desire and the resultant scoring is colourful (sometimes outrageously so) and inexhaustibly inventive.
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Five of the seven works featured on this recording belong to a kind of concerto that scholars of all nationalities tend to call, for want of a better alternative, the ‘concerto con molti istromenti’ (literally, ‘concerto with several instruments’). The description is Vivaldi’s own and appears as a heading in two of his manuscripts (one of them that of RV555). It corresponds exactly, in translation, to the expression ‘concerts avec plusieurs instruments’ used by Bach for his six Brandenburg Concertos. ‘Molti’ and ‘plusieurs’ refer less to the total number of instruments employed—one could, after all, perform conventional solo concertos with heavily doubled orchestral parts, so increasing the number of instruments without limit—than to their variety. Vivaldi, like Bach, revels in contrast, in the combination or juxtaposition of rare, or rarely associated, instruments.
‘Concerti con molti istromenti’ were very unusual in Italy, much more common in Germany. The main reason for their rarity south of the Alps must have been the relative paucity of wind instruments (whose presence is normal in such concertos). Exceptionally among his Italian contemporaries, Vivaldi wrote them in considerable quantity: about thirty survive. The need to produce them probably occurred irregularly, in connection with special events. Most of the concertos can be associated with one of four venues or types of event.
The largest and most interesting group belonged to the repertoire of the Ospedale della Pietà, the home for foundlings that was one of four such charitable institutions (known as ospedali grandi) found within Venice. All four systematically trained a section of their female population as musicians, both vocalists and instrumentalists. These musicians, who collectively made up the coro (literally, ‘choir’, but in this instance including the instrumentalists as well), performed regularly at services in the respective institution’s chapel. The prime purpose of these performances, viewed as remarkable throughout Europe on account of the musicians’ extraordinary proficiency (especially in relation to their gender), was to earn the favour of the local and visiting public, which would then, it was hoped, result in legacies or similar benefits. While all four ospedali boasted choirs capable of vying with one another, the Pietà (which, as the most populous, had the largest pool of talent on which to draw) was, in Vivaldi’s day, unrivalled in the sphere of instrumental music. A French connoisseur of music, Charles de Brosses, wrote in 1739: ‘Out of the four ospedali, the one that I visit most often, and where I enjoy myself most, is the Pietà; it is also the best for instrumental music. What disciplined playing! It is only there that one hears the impeccably coordinated attack [premier coup d’archet] on which the Paris Opéra so falsely prides itself.’ The Pietà assembled, over the years, a huge and diverse instrumentarium for the benefit of the girls and women of the coro. When Charles de Brosses enthuses, ‘[they] play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, the bassoon; in short, there is no instrument large enough to scare them’, he is actually understating the case. Instruments rare enough anywhere—and virtually unknown in Italy—found their way into the Pietà. Among the stringed instruments were the viola d’amore, with its six fingered and six resonating strings, the viola all’inglese (a mysterious six-stringed instrument built in several sizes whose middle member Leopold Mozart referred to, a few decades later, as the ‘Englisches Violett’, or ‘English Viola’) and two violins specially modified in an unknown way to sound like trombe marine (these ‘trumpets marine’ were a kind of bowed monochord that produced a peculiar rattling sound on account of their freely vibrating bridge). Among the woodwind instruments were at least two sizes of chalumeau (elder cousin to the clarinet which, lacking a speaker key, played mostly in its fundamental register), the clarinet itself (whose presence in Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha Triumphans of 1716 (recorded by the same artists on) marks its first datable appearance in an Italian score), the sopranino recorder and perhaps also the flageolet. Trumpets were also available, although the horn was not cultivated until 1747, after Vivaldi’s death. Many members of the coro played several instruments, including some of the more exotic ones. For instance, the famous violinist Anna Maria is lauded (in an anonymous poem dating from the middle of the 1730s) for her equal mastery of the harpsichord, cello, viola d’amore, lute, theorbo and mandolin.
To accommodate this wealth of instruments and talented performers, the Pietà appended purely instrumental music to its services. After the finish of what was called the ‘ordinary’ music (at Vespers this would constitute the five Psalms and a Magnificat, to which, perhaps, a few motets for solo voice would be added), the instrumentalists treated the congregation to a feast of orchestral playing. As described by an anonymous German visitor in 1725: ‘When the singing is done, there customarily follows, at the Pietà, a splendid concert, which always deserves to be heard as much as a whole opera.’
During such performances the female instrumentalists, who could number over twenty, were largely invisible to the congregation-cum-audience for reasons of decorum. In the galleries at the sides of the chapel their forms were obscured by grilles, over which black gauze was draped for added concealment. However, this invisibility gave them, and the composers who worked for them, the advantage of surprise. Players could exchange instruments out of public view, and intriguing new sounds could emerge without warning. And because the Pietà’s orchestra was an unusually subservient body (all its members—even the internationally famous ‘stars’—were in legal terms only wards of the institution), inequalities and inconsistencies in the use of solo instruments could be tolerated without ruffling any feathers. In a way, the Pietà’s players prefigured the ‘session’ musicians of today: competent, versatile and pliable in high degree.
Vivaldi’s close links with the Pietà (at various times, as teacher of the violin and other stringed instruments, director of the orchestra and purveyor of musical compositions) during most of his working life require little comment. So far as the composition of concertos was concerned, his most productive period was that stretching from 1723 to 1729, during which time he supplied the Pietà by contract with two concertos every month, attaining a total of almost one hundred and fifty. Most of these were conventional solo concertos, but there was scope for several other kinds: with two or more soloists; with no soloists; with soloists but no orchestra; for divided ensemble.
The second natural ‘home’ for concertos with several soloists was the opera house. Opera orchestras of Vivaldi’s day regularly included, in addition to the usual strings and continuo instruments, a pair of oboes (capable of doubling on other wind instruments), one or more bassoons and a pair of horns. Occasionally, unusual instruments such as the psaltery and the viola d’amore were added for special expressive effect in an aria, thereby becoming available for use also in the instrumental music heard before and during the opera. Later in the century the critic and biographer J A Hiller identified Vivaldi’s Concerto RV571, which has parts for two oboes, two horns and bassoon, as one performed at a Venetian opera house (evidently that of S. Angelo) in 1717. He may have been wrong over the precise identification (the surviving score in Dresden was not copied—in Venice, by the flautist J J Quantz—until 1726), but the type of concerto seems exactly right.
Lavishly scored concertos could also be suited to church festivals for which especially large orchestras were recruited. For instance, the two fashionable Venetian convents of S. Lorenzo and S. Maria della Celestia went to enormous expense each year to obtain the services of the leading musicians, not merely of Venice but of the whole peninsula, for their respective patronal festivals.
Finally, a few permanent orchestras, mainly outside Italy, were equipped to perform them. Vivaldi enjoyed especially close relations with the orchestra of the Saxon court based at Dresden ever since the visit to the Pietà of the electoral prince (later Frederick Augustus II) in 1712. In 1716 the leading violinist of the court orchestra (Hofkapelle), Johann Georg Pisendel, accompanied the same prince on a longer visit to Venice, becoming Vivaldi’s pupil, friend and (after his return) enthusiastic advocate. The Hofkapelle boasted numerous expert wind players who naturally required exposure in the form of solo parts. Two of Vivaldi’s ‘concerti con molti istromenti’—RV576 and 577—were expressly written by Vivaldi for this orchestra, and the very numerous concertos of this type preserved in the court musical archive (today held by the Sächsische Landesbibliothek) point to its importance as a destination for heavily scored works. Moreover, Pisendel, no mean composer himself, was in the habit of ‘customizing’ orchestral works taken into the repertoire of the Hofkapelle, of which he became director in 1729; in this way, not a few conventional concertos have been transformed, via his handiwork, into synthetic ‘concerti con molti istromenti’!
When discussing the character of Vivaldi’s concertos of this type, one must be careful to distinguish between the form, which is, in Vivaldian terms, perfectly conventional, and the scoring, which is colourful (sometimes outrageously so) and inexhaustibly inventive. In ‘solo’ sections the multiple soloists appear variously in alternation and in combination with each other. The patterns that their interplay creates are deliberately kept unpredictable, subject to no routine. In ‘tutti’ sections, where in ordinary solo concertos the soloist merely doubles the appropriate orchestral line, Vivaldi adopts a surprisingly progressive approach that anticipates the symphonic practice of the second half of the eighteenth century. Here, the solo instruments frequently have independent, or semi-independent, parts. These are not necessarily prominent, but they give the orchestral texture an added warmth and richness.
RV574, whose two instruments named as ‘tromboni da caccia’ are merely trompes de chasse, or horns, is almost certainly an ‘opera-house’ concerto. Its partly autograph score is headed, in Vivaldi’s hand, ‘Concerto per S.A.S.I.S.P.G.M.D.G.S.M.B.’. Many have tried their hand at interpreting this dedication, but a plausible solution arrived only in 1995, when Carlo Vitali completed the initials to read: ‘Sua Altezza Serenissima Il Signor Principe Giuseppe Maria De’ Gonzaga Signor Mio Benignissimo’ (‘His Most Serene Highness My Lord Prince Giuseppe Maria De’ Gonzaga, My Most Kind Master’). Gonzaga, the music-loving younger brother of the duke of the small territory of Guastalla (adjoining Mantua), was in fact Vivaldi’s choice of dedicatee for the printed libretto of an opera performed under his direction at S. Angelo in early 1714, so it would not be too fanciful to identify the concerto as entr’acte music for that very occasion.
The evocative Concerto funebre, RV579, was probably written in the mid-1720s for performance at the funeral of a patron or governor of the Pietà. The highly original, indeed unique, combination of a muted oboe, a tenor chalumeau and a trio (two soprano instruments and one bass) of viole all’inglese, accompanied by muted strings, lends this work a suitably lugubrious tone, which is only lightened a little when the mutes come off for the fourth movement. The slow opening movement is an adaptation of a sinfonia for a solemn procession to an execution in Vivaldi’s opera Tito Manlio (1719), while the fourth movement borrows the material of the finale of the Concerto without soloist RV123.
RV562—composed, according to its title, for the feast of St Lawrence—was copied out by Pisendel during his Venetian sojourn of 1716/7. It may therefore relate to the celebration of this martyr’s feast on 9/10 August 1716. Since, according to its liturgical calendar, the Pietà did not celebrate this feast with music (other than chant), it is very possible that Vivaldi composed the concerto for the Venetian convent dedicated to the saint, and that either he or Pisendel took the prominent solo violin part. The written-out cadenza for the third movement recycles material used earlier in that of the Concerto RV208. Such self-borrowing was facilitated by the fact that cadenzas acquired the habit of referring directly to the main material of the movement only much later in the century; being athematic, they possessed a ‘passe-partout’ quality.
RV97 is a real oddity: a ‘chamber’ concerto without orchestral strings that in other respects adopts all the mannerisms of a ‘concerto con molti istromenti’ in F major, right down to the allusions to hunting calls (and, by extension, to the world of princely courts) associated with horns playing in this key. Vivaldi could well have written the viola d’amore part for himself to play (a recently discovered document records that on 25 April 1717, passing through the town of Cento, he played this instrument at Vespers in the Church of the Holy Name of God, which was ‘so packed with people that they struggled among themselves and spilled out half way into the street’). Another peculiarity is the presence of an introductory slow movement, a feature otherwise almost unknown among Vivaldi’s concertos without orchestra. It is certainly a mature (post-1720) work; I suspect that it was written for an intimate private concert held in honour of some nobleman.
The Concerto RV781, formerly designated RV563 in Peter Ryom’s general catalogue of Vivaldi’s works, is technically only a ‘double’ concerto, since the third solo instrument, a violin, appears separately, and only in the central slow movement. It survives only in a contemporary copy in Vienna. The wind parts are nominally for oboe, but they observe the style, and the restricted choice of notes, of the natural trumpet. This has led several scholars to speculate whether, in fact, the intended instruments are not trumpets rather than oboes, a view to which the present recording subscribes. (Actually, the question is more complex than at first it seems, since the oboe was frequently used in the early eighteenth century as an ersatz trumpet; consider, for example, the use of the solo oboe as a partner to the solo trumpet in the opening movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, RV589.) What is not in doubt is the very early date of the concerto; it may have been composed before 1710 when Vivaldi was still groping towards the style that finally blazed forth in L’estro armonico of 1711.
RV555, the most extravagantly scored of all the concertos in this recording, poses a riddle—the identity of the pair of instruments that appear for the first time in the finale and are labelled ‘2 Trombe’. The problem with accepting this designation at face value is that these parts, while often fanfare-like in character and therefore related in a general sense to the trumpet style, contain too many notes in the octave above middle C that are unplayable on the natural instrument. There are other technical difficulties, and also problems of balance with the rest of the ensemble. Robert King’s novel solution, which I find fully convincing, is to interpret trombe as a shorthand form of violini in tromba marina (the recording employs ordinary violins played near the bridge and making maximum use of harmonics in an attempt to simulate the historical instruments). There is a precedent for this. For a similar concerto in C major, RV558 (specially written for a visit of Frederick Augustus’ son to the Pietà in 1740), Vivaldi’s copyist wrote ‘violini in tromba marina’ on the title-page but abbreviated this to ‘trombe’ or ‘trombe marine’ in the score itself. The relevant parts in RV555 possess exactly the same general characteristics as those in RV558. Similarly, the ‘violino in tromba’ required in the solo concertos RV221, 311 and 313 may in reality be, as argued by Cesare Fertonani in a recent book on Vivaldi’s instrumental music, a ‘violino in tromba marina’. The point is that, with Vivaldi, so many options remain open: what was yesterday’s heresy can so easily turn into today’s orthodoxy.
RV566, probably also dating from the 1720s and written for the Pietà, features as its solo instruments pairs of recorders, oboes and violins. It is noteworthy how, in the outer movements, the solo episodes are almost entirely reserved for the violins (as in an orthodox concerto for two violins), although the wind instruments have plenty of ‘solo’ phrases to play during the tutti (ritornello) sections. As so often in his concertos, Vivaldi gives the central slow movement a chamber-music scoring, reserving it for a trio of recorders and bassoon.
Michael Talbot © 1998