Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Sonatore de la Gioiosa Marca; Giuliano Carmignola, violin. Divox Antiqua CDX-79404.

Another month, another recording of Antonio Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).  The recordings seem to come more frequently than the actual changes of the year.  It's understandable. Vivaldi's Seasons are among the handful of most-recognizable concertos ever written, so we get a plentitude of recordings of them.  Not only are there probably a hundred different discs available, they come in a variety of musical styles and ensembles from very small, a handful of players, to medium-sized chamber groups to members of full-scale symphony orchestras; and the performances come on period and modern instruments.  There are even transcriptions for flute and for clarinet and for other solo instruments.  The choices are endless.

In the case of Sonatore de la Gioiosa Marca (a mouthful if there ever was one for such a small band), we get nine performers playing on period instruments in an original 1994 recording remastered by Divox Antiqua in 2008 using 24/96 processing.  Although I had never heard the recording before, it apparently has its fans.  Sonatore de la Gioiosa is a well-known name among the period-instruments crowd, especially in Europe.

The ensemble play with great zest, enthusiasm, and brawny vigor, appearing to delight in the music making.  That delight is, after all, the main concern in this music, which aims to describe the seasons of the year complete with chirping birds, murmuring breezes, rustling leaves, thundering weather, baying hounds, glittering snow, chattering teeth, and breaking ice, among many other sounds of nature.

The problem I had with the interpretations, though, is that while they are all extremely well played, they all seem alike--fast and loud, with tempos so brisk they tend to rob the music of some of its subtler pictorial qualities.  I mean, if the pace isn't sufficiently varied and the emphases not adequately diverse, the music just all sounds the same.  At times, Sonatore de la Gioiosa Marca seem positively feverish, which may suit some of the music, to be sure, but not all of it by any means.  A good example is "Winter," which should begin with a vivid evocation of the cold, with shivering nerves, icicles, and all.  But it doesn't.  It just starts with a rush of notes and conjures up little of the wintry scene Vivaldi had in mind.  Then, following the opening movement, we get the famous Largo, which ought to be among the sweetest music ever heard, eliciting memories of cozy hearth and home.  Instead, here we simply get a jaunty little tune.  In a crowded field of contenders, these vigorous performances don't entirely stand up, the readings more straight-ahead than imaginative.

Nor does the sound entirely satisfy, despite its near-audiophile processing.  It is robust, to be sure, and dynamic, but it, too, seems all of the same cloth, coming across as more flash than nuance.  The engineers miked the small group rather closely, so everything is on top of the listener, making for some dramatic but not always realistic sonics nor a very natural acoustic.

My own preferences in this warhorse remain unchallenged:  Kuijken and La Petite Bande (Sony), Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), and Pinnock and the English Concert (DG Archiv) for period-instruments performances; Marriner and the Academy (Decca) and I Solisti Italiani (Denon) for small, modern-instruments performances; and Perlman and members of the LPO (EMI) for a larger-scale modern-instruments performance.  As for Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, well, it's a competitive field, and, as I say, the recording is mainly for dedicated fans.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa