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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Vivaldi x2²

Double Concertos for flute, oboe, violin and cello
La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only Available Friday 2 August 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2023
Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Fox-Gál
Engineered by Dave Rowell
Release date: 2 August 2024
Total duration: 70 minutes 6 seconds
Although the early history of the instrumental concerto owes significant debts to composers such as Albinoni, Gregori, Taglietti and Torelli, there can be little doubt that the greatest credit of all is due to Antonio Vivaldi.

Born in Venice, Vivaldi was a priest, a teacher, an impresario, a virtuoso violinist and a composer, from whose pen flowed a prodigious amount of music, exceeded only by a handful of composers such as Telemann. During his lifetime, he composed around 500 concertos, mostly for a single soloist with an accompaniment of strings and continuo; the bulk of these were probably written for—or at least were performed in—the chapel of the Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian foundling hospital which provided Vivaldi with significant periods of employment throughout his career. Concertos for a single soloist—or even with no soloist at all—would suffice for most services held in the chapel, but sometimes the occasion demanded something a little more celebratory. For special religious festivals, Vivaldi composed either grandiose solo concertos or concertos with more than one soloist. The largest group of these works is a body of around 40 concertos written for identical pairs of instruments with a further 15 for contrasting instruments such as violin and organ, violin and oboe, and violin and cello; from this latter group, only three—for viola d’amore and lute, oboe and bassoon and for oboe and cello—survive in single examples.

His earliest examples of the double concerto are to be found in his 1711 publication L’estro armonico. This set of concertos took Europe by storm and influenced composers such as Bach, Graupner and Telemann who composed many works in a similar vein. Oddly, it seems that Italy was rather reluctant to follow suit; the only Italian composers—to my knowledge—who produced works that treat the soloists as near-equals are Albinoni, Bigaglia, the Marcello brothers, Torelli and Zavateri, though none of these composers produced double concertos in any great quantity. Brescianello, Tartini and Valentini left no surviving examples at all.

As in his solo concertos, the violin is the instrument for which Vivaldi composed the bulk of his double concertos. Around thirty such works for two violins survive, spanning a period between 1711 and 1740. It is difficult to assign dates to many of Vivaldi’s instrumental compositions, but we suspect that the concerto in G (RV516) was probably written in the late 1720s or early 1730s. This period can be mooted on account of its close relationship with a sonata in G (RV71), one of four works for two violins and optional bass that Vivaldi composed for a tour of ‘Germania’ undertaken by the composer and his father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi in 1729.

The concerto in B flat (RV524) on the other hand probably dates from the late 1730s; this work is heavily influenced by the gallant style, a fashion that Vivaldi embraced increasingly towards the end of his life in order to keep abreast of the trends emanating from modish Neapolitan composers such as Hasse, Porpora and Vinci. The techniques required for both these concertos show exactly why Vivaldi’s reputation as a great violinist was undisputed (even by his critics) and why certain pupils of his from the Pietà such as Anna Maria were said to be among the finest in Europe.

In contrast to the two double violin concertos, the single concerto for 2 cellos was probably composed in the 1710s. It was almost certainly intended for religious purposes as it was composed on 18-stave paper (normally reserved for sacred choral music) and was bound (by Vivaldi himself) in a volume titled Opere Sacre, e Concerti. It is interesting to note that the use of two obbligato cellos was quite common in sacred music at the time; two solo cellos can be found in Vivaldi’s early setting (c1714/15) of the Dixit Dominus (RV595) and in Caldara’s Venetian setting of the Gloria (1707), to name but two examples.

When one considers the high number of flute concertos by Vivaldi (including numerous lost examples) it is perhaps surprising that he composed just the single concerto for two flutes. The Pietà was a rare bastion of woodwind playing in Italy and included flute players amongst its ranks; there is even a surviving flute by Giuseppe Castel (c1730) that is said to have belonged to the Pietà. The intended recipients of the solo parts were probably oboists who also played the flute and recorder. Such versatility among wind players was common in the eighteenth century and is doubtless the reason for the appearance of two recorders in the middle movement of the concerto in C (RV557).

The oboe was the most common woodwind instrument used in Italy during this period and could often be found in theatre and church orchestras. The concerto for 2 oboes in C (RV534) is slightly unusual as Vivaldi forgoes his usual treatment of ritornello form particularly in the opening movement, pitting the soloists against the strings in short bursts; a similar technique can be found in another of his double oboe concertos (RV536).

Two works in this programme were almost certainly composed for destinations other than the Pietà. The concerto in C (RV557) originally called for a bassoon, an instrument that was curiously absent from the Pietà’s store cupboard. Subsequently, Vivaldi returned to this work and erased the bassoon from the first page of the manuscript, suggesting that it may have entered the Pietà’s repertory at a later date.

The concerto in F (RV572, whose title translates as 'Proteus or the world turned upside down') started life as a concerto for violin and cello before Vivaldi added a solo flute and oboe to each solo line and a harpsichord to that of the cello. Proteus, a minor river god, had an uncanny ability to metamorphose; only if you grasped him hard enough would he revert to his original form, wittily portrayed by the violas who spend much of the first movement playing drones. This work survives as a set of autograph parts split between the Henry Watson Library in Manchester and the British Library. The concerto was one of many that Vivaldi sold to the Venetian Cardinal Ottoboni in the 1720s. These were subsequently purchased after the death of the cardinal—and Vivaldi—by Charles Jennens, friend and librettist of Handel.

Adrian Chandler © 2024

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