'Italian baroque meets Argentinian tango'—it's hardly an obvious combination, and given the close proximity of Vivaldi and Piazzolla here (their works alternate on the programme), there is ample scope for stylistic mismatch.
In fact, both composers write the sort of music that lends itself to unusual programming ideas, and they are supported by a number of helping hands along the way. The most significant is the Russian composer and arranger Leonid Desyatnikov, who has not only arranged the Piazzolla scores for Vivaldi's forces, but has also added to them a number of explicit references to Vivaldi's concertos. The Desyantnikov arrangements were originally made for Gidon Kremer, whose advocacy of Piazzolla has been both energetic and inspiring in recent years. Despite the detailed programme notes, I have been unable to work out exactly what the original forces were that Pizzolla had in mind for this music. However, it is versatile stuff, and with the violin taking the lead role, presumably from the bandoneon, little is lost in the way of Argentinian colour.
The recording was made live at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh during a tour, in which the Scottish Ensemble took the Eight Seasons programme to cities around Scotland. The ensemble is made up of a string section of 12, the soloist, and lute and harpsichord continuo for the Vivaldi. The works are therefore presented on quite a small scale, which for the Vivaldi in particular brings valuable intimacy. The multiple performances have allowed the players to hone their ensemble skills, and they play with remarkable precision. That is not unusual in Vivaldi recordings, but by applying those baroque standards to the Piazzolla, the sharpness gives those dance rhythms a real kick.
The sound quality is good, although the detail in the string sound could be clearer. More importantly though, the relationship between the violin soloist and the ensemble is just right. He is always distinct but never separate. That is a tricky balance to get right, and to do so in a live recording is all the more impressive.
In terms of the repertoire, the Scottish Ensemble are up against a single but formidable competitor: Gidon Kremer himself with his famous elite ensemble Kremerata Baltica (Nonesuch B0000206A4). Generally speaking, Kremer is more energetic with both composers, which serves the Piazzolla better than the Vivaldi. The Scottish Ensemble are more laid back, and in the Vivaldi they bring a real sense of poise, an ideal blend of historical sensibility and regulated energy. Keremer's energetic approach gives him the edge in the tangos though. There is no place for genteel reserve here, and Kremer's more sultry approach, only barely suppressing the deep passion beneath the music, is much more in the spirit of the nuevo tango.
On the other hand, Kremer struggles to define the musical connections between the Vivaldi and the Piazzolla, and that is something the Scottish Ensemble seem to manage much better. They don't make the Vivaldi any more tango, but they refine the tango to the sensibility of the baroque. When Kremer conceived this programme, he was obviously hoping to surprise his audience with the coherency of the results. In the event, he is too carried away with the Piazzolla to let issues of programming logic hold him back on the stage. By taking a more measured approach, the Scottish Ensemble succeed in bringing this paradoxical idea to fruition.