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This anticipated second recording in The Avison Ensemble's Baroque series includes a complete recording of Antonio Vivaldi's virtuosic violin concertos by the outstanding period instrument orchestra. Directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk, Britain's foremost Baroque violin virtuoso, the ensemble presents an insightful performance of the masterpiece that is brimming with energy.
Vivaldi's Opus 8 includes 'The Four Seasons', without a doubt Vivaldi's best-known work. Each of the twelve concertos is extremely demanding and Beznosiuk's virtuosity permeates throughout the performances. The thematic elements within each innovative work result in a collection that is colourful, fresh and emotionally charged. Opus 8 is a true testament of Vivaldi's ability for invention and variation.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Vivaldi had an inauspicious background. He was born on 4 March 1678, the first of at least nine children produced by Giovanni Battista and Camilla. He was baptised at home on the day of his birth in fear that he might die abruptly. The sickliness that resulted in his swift baptism may have been the first sign of the ill health, probably asthma, which plagued Vivaldi for the rest of his life. His father, who had begun his career as a barber was, by the time of Vivaldi’s birth, working as a professional musician. In 1685 Giovanni was admitted to the orchestra of St Mark’s Basilica. Although it was not Venice’s cathedral, the close proximity of the Basilica to the Doge’s Palace, coupled with its location on the principal square, facilitated its development into a central venue for the production of ceremonial sacred music. The young Antonio, who was trained in music by his father, may have acted as his deputy at St Mark’s; his earliest recorded public appearance, as a ‘supernumerary’ violinist, was at the Basilica at Christmas 1696.
Despite his youthful musical promise, Vivaldi was directed towards the priesthood. Such a move was not without precedent, particularly for those of humble birth, as this career path would have offered a hope of social mobility and provided some financial security. However, Vivaldi was less than dedicated to his priestly duties and, soon after his ordination in 1703, he turned his back on the priesthood in favour of a career in music. In the same year that Vivaldi became a priest, he entered the employ of the Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), a refuge for orphaned, illegitimate, destitute, or abandoned girls. Many of them would receive some musical training and Vivaldi, as their Maestro di Violino, would have provided this education. A select group of these girls were used to supply music for services at the Pietà, important social occasions in the calendar of the Venetian nobility and an attraction for foreign visitors. The English traveller, Edward Wright, attended one of these performances; he recorded that the girls performed behind iron grills which obscured them from view.
Part of Vivaldi’s duties at the Pietà involved the composition of new music for the girls to perform, and many of Vivaldi’s concertos were written for their use. Even in later years when his travels prevented him teaching at the Pietà, he continued to compose concertos for them. From 1713 he was given the opportunity, by the governors of the Pietà, to compose sacred vocal music and his success led to his promotion to the post of Maestro di Concerti in 1716. The best known of his church music from this period is the magnificent Gloria (RV. 589) from c1715. Vivaldi was also a respected composer of operas and several were performed during his extended trips to Mantua and Rome. Furthermore, he made trips to Prague, Amsterdam, and Vienna; in the latter place he died in abject poverty in 1741 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
In his lifetime Vivaldi was more highly esteemed as a violinist than as a composer of music. Nevertheless, he was prolific and wrote around five-hundred concertos for a variety of forces. Most were written for a solo violin with orchestra, but a substantial number were composed for soloists on instruments as diverse as the cello, mandolin, recorder, and bassoon; a significant number of other concertos were written for two or more soloists. Vivaldi boasted, rather fancifully, that he could compose a concerto faster than a copyist could write one out. His first published works, the Opus 1 trio sonatas from c1705, are in deference to those by Arcangelo Corelli. They were followed by a set of twelve violin sonatas four years later. By this time Vivaldi was actively composing concertos which circulated in manuscript; his first published concertos, the Opus 3 L’estro armonico (Harmonic inspiration), appeared in 1711. This set was one of the most influential musical publications of the first half of the eighteenth century and they were particularly popular in Germany where J. S. Bach transcribed several for keyboard. Other sonatas and concertos appeared in print over the subsequent years, but the best known of these are the twelve Opus 8 concertos, first published at Amsterdam in 1725. Vivaldi gave them the title of Il cimento dell’armonica e dell’inventione (The trial between harmony and invention) and dedicated them to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a cousin of Haydn’s patron at Dolni Lukavice. The first edition discloses that Vivaldi was Morzin’s Maestro di Musica in Italia and in this capacity it appears that he was commissioned, on an occasional basis, to send fresh compositions to Morzin by post. Vivaldi had clearly been in his service for many years before the Opus 8’s publication, and manuscript copies of the Four Seasons had been in Morzin’s possession for some time, probably since their composition in the 1710s. Perhaps in order to make these four concertos seem fresher, and avoid any offence to his patron, Vivaldi included descriptive sonnets of the Seasons, probably written by himself, and partly influenced by the poetry of John Milton. The text of the sonnets was linked to events within the concertos by a series of cue letters, with further illustrative quotes or paraphrases of the sonnets added to the music.
From an early date the Four Seasons were popular with audiences. In France they were particularly admired and ‘Spring’ was a favourite at the Concert Spiritual. A distinguished performance of this concerto took place in 1730 when it was played at the court of Louis XV by a band formed, in part, of members of the aristocracy. Such was the popularity of Vivaldi in France that, in 1739, a Paris edition of the Opus 8 appeared. Even in Italy, a country where Vivaldi’s fame rested more on his ability as a performer, the Four Seasons were performed long after his death and in 1761 they were, according to Carlo Goldoni, Vivaldi’s chief claim to fame. In Britain these works appear to have been less popular and were never published in London, even though John Walsh reissued other opi by Vivaldi. Nevertheless, the fifth concerto from the Opus 8 is known to have received a London performance in 1724, presumably from a manuscript copy brought from Italy. John Hawkins, the British musicologist, knew these concertos; in 1776 he wrote that the ‘Opera VIII is the most applauded of Vivaldi’s works.’ A copy of the Opus 8 also appears to have found its way to Newcastle upon Tyne where Charles Avison, in his Essay on Musical Expression (1752), criticised the way the Four Seasons imitated the sound of nature, chiefly the barking of a dog. He also said that Vivaldi’s music was ‘only a fit Amusement for Children; nor indeed for these, if ever they are intended to be led to a just Taste in Music’. Yet, in his youth, Avison must have held Vivaldi in far higher esteem as several of his early concertos, particularly those for keyboard, have a marked deference to those by Vivaldi.
Outside the collection that comprises of Four Seasons, which are obviously linked together, the other concertos were not assembled as a single integrated collection. Of the remaining eight, three were given names. These are No. 5 ‘La Tempesta di Mare’ (‘The Storm at Sea’), No. 6 ‘Il Piacere’ (‘Pleasure’), and No. 10 ‘La Caccia’ (‘The Hunt’). Unlike the Seasons, these concertos were not accompanied by descriptive texts. Instead, the titles imply a certain event or emotion and some, if not all, appear to have been given their labels as an afterthought to describe existing music. For example, Concerto 6, ‘Pleasure’, demonstrates little difference between it and other un-named concertos; likewise ‘The Hunt’, in spite of its horn-like motivic ideas, has little else to identify it with an actual hunt. Of the unnamed concertos, No. 7 was originally dedicated to Johann Georg Pisendel, a pupil of Vivaldi in 1716-17, while No. 9 began life as an oboe concerto. Concerto twelve also exists in an arrangement for solo oboe with orchestra.
Within his concertos Vivaldi utilised a three-movement plan of fast-slow-fast, a layout that was reproduced by composers throughout Europe. In his fast movements he favoured an arrangement that has become known as ‘ritornello form’, a structural plan that consists of several recapitulations of the main thematic material, often varied and in closely related keys, played by the full orchestra. Between these ’ritornels’ are sandwiched episodes in which the soloists are the chief protagonists. Although it is unknown if Vivaldi created this form he certainly popularised it and it was widely imitated. The central slow movements are frequently short and in closely related keys; they also place the emphasis on the soloists, who are expected to convey the intense emotional content of the music.
All twelve concertos in this set are fine works, even if the Four Seasons have come to overshadow the others. First movements, such as those of concertos six and seven, are strong, vibrant, and reveal Vivaldi’s exceptional skill at composition. Likewise the vivacious start of ‘La Tempesta di Mare’, with its driving descending scales, is dazzling in its virtuosity and a fine specimen of Vivaldi’s art. Some movements, such as opening of No.11, feature a fugal ritornello idea; others, for instance the central sarabande movement of concerto twelve, are in the form of a dance. The Four Seasons themselves, with their programmatic elements, were works of genius and highly progressive for their time. Even if they were not fully appreciated by Vivaldi’s peers, they have developed into a worldwide phenomenon. It is perhaps the Italian musician, Francesco Geminiani, who best captured the essence of Vivaldi’s Opus 8 when he wrote that the ‘Intention of Musick is not only to please the Ear, but to express Sentiments, strike the Imagination, affect the Mind, and command the Passions.’ It is in these concertos that Vivaldi rose closest to this ideal aesthetic and, in doing so, produced an exceptional work that has withstood the ravages of time and continues to maintain a prominent place in twenty-first century culture.
Simon D. I. Fleming © 2011
We live in a world where the ubiquity of recorded music can blind us to its content and with the use of Le Quattro Stagioni in film and TV advertising, lift and restaurant muzak, and as the default setting in so many companies’ call-queuing systems the situation is acute. When we finally sit down in silence to a performance it’s very easy to listen but much harder to really HEAR.
We have help in getting beneath the aural surface of the music and finding its deeper meaning in the shape of the four sonnets which accompany the first four concerti of this set. Vivaldi makes mention of these and their handy guide-letters in the dedication (to Count Wenzel von Morzin of Bohemia) of the first edition, explaining their inclusion to provide a detailed ‘road-map’ to music that was already in the Count’s possession, having been sent to him some years before in manuscript form. Whether or not these sonnets were actually penned by Vivaldi, they are doubly useful, setting not only the visual scene for each movement but also a strong physical sense and an emotional, inner subtext. We have, of course, the celebrated musical depictions of storms, a variety of flora and fauna, a plethora of different winds, thunder and lighting and a frozen lagoon; all these are well-known, well-loved and great fun to play but we must also marvel at Vivaldi’s effortless evocations of human states: joy and faith in the future (‘Spring’), dull lethargy and inertia, sobbing, fear and trepidation (‘Summer’), of drunken staggering, slurred speech, inebriated hiccoughs and even the bewildered fear of a desperate tormented animal (‘Autumn’). In the last line of the sonnet accompanying ‘Winter’, despite biting wind, cracking ice and chattering teeth, Vivaldi shows that he has clearly focused on the joys rather than the hardships of that season. Above all, one feels that all his descriptions and evocations are suffused with love, depicting the essence of life in his beloved Veneto with the same heartfelt regard and attention to detail that we see in the canvases of Canaletto, the two Tiepolos or the less polished Pietro Longhi.
The instantly recognizable opening theme of ‘Spring’ is re-used by Vivaldi in operatic contexts: once to accompany the appearance of a personification of fortune and elsewhere to evoke the sense of a calm and prosperous voyage, uses which intrigue me and suggest that we should think of this familiar music not so much as a robust shout of welcome to the long-awaited season but representing a gentler, more profound sense of gratitude and relief at its arrival. Finer shades of meaning like this can be teased out of the whole Opus 8 set and make for a richer aural experience which is often lost in the kinetic frenzy (there are an awful lot of notes in Vivaldi!) of much of the music, inducing a sort of ‘note-blindness’ which can obscure the subtle variety of energies bustling around these scores. Let us not forget how richly characterful the other 8 concerti are also, ‘La Tempesta di Mare’ and ‘La Caccia’ are self-explanatory but there are many other delights: the prosecco fizz of ‘Il Piacere’, the unsettled tension and anxiety of No. 7, sombre whimsy of No. 8 with its cadenza-like pedal points in the last movement, the angular, chromatic No. 9 and the charming No. 12, full of bonhomie (or should that be bonarietá?). For me the stand-out piece is No. 11, written in D Major, the key of many of Vivaldi’s larger-scale violin concerti; the violin and orchestra are truly integrated and its Christmas-morning clamour is infectious.
Throughout the set, in the same way that the Venetians’ artistic heritage of dynamic light, through Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, pulses and vibrates, so Vivaldi’s musical energy vibrates within us, connecting us to him in an irresistible, celebratory collection.
I am indebted to Paul Everett whose book, Vivaldi: the Four Seasons and Other Concertos, Op.8 (Cambridge University Press 1996) was used in the preparation of this note.
Pavlo Beznosiuk © 2011