Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (SACD review)

Also, Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.  Lara St. John, violin; Eduardo Marturet, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Ancalagon ANC 134.

Although Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, people will probably always remember him best for his Four Seasons violin concertos, his little tone pictures with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. The music lover has about 800 different choices of recordings to choose among at any given time; however, that number keeps changing almost weekly as new discs arrive on the scene. This set by Lara St. John and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, lead by Eduardo Marturet, is one of dozens that appeared in just the last couple of years.

While I loved Ms. St. John's rendering of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 3, also on an Ancalagon SACD, these Four Seasons are more problematical. Her pacing here is mostly moderate, designed neither to offend nor distract, at least at first. Nevertheless, her actual playing, which she does on a 1779 "Salabue" Guadagnini, sounds sometimes a bit more florid than necessary. I wondered if on occasion she wasn't just a little too plush and personal, too idiosyncratic to the point of excess, and that did distract my attention. If one is listening to the playing technique more than to the music, there's probably something wrong. Fortunately, hers is the kind of interpretative approach one can easily get used to. In other words, you'll either love these readings or hate them. I rather liked them, but I wouldn't say I liked them better than a dozen or so favorite performances of mine.

The "Winter" concerto is possibly the best example of Ms. St. John's style because it appears to me the most touched by her particular individuality. It is odd in its wildly contrasting tempos, mood swings, and slowings down, often within the same movement. Never does she get really animated, yet she plays with considerable passion. As I say, odd.

Accompanying the Vivaldi Four Seasons are the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the Argentinean composer and bandoneonist best known for his tango creations. He wrote his four Seasons not as a set but as completely separate entities for his own band. Only in 1999 did Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov arrange them for solo violin and strings and make the Vivaldi connection. While they are fascinating works, they don't have much to do with Vivaldi beyond their title. These Piazzolla pieces, each written in a single brief movement, have a distinctive Latin-dance flavor to them, evoking tones quite different from Vivaldi's. The pairing seems to me more of a marketing ploy than a completely satisfying musical decision.

Recorded in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2008, the sound on this hybrid disc comes in multichannel SACD and regular two-channel stereo.  I listened in stereo, where the sonics are big and warm and a tad heavy for my taste in this music. Judging by the booklet picture, there appear to be a couple of dozen performers involved, although it's a little hard to tell from the recording, which puts Ms. St. John slightly out in front of what seems like a multitude of players in the ensemble around and behind her. Stage depth is modest, and a lot of ambient bloom in the midrange tends to diminish ultimate transparency. My guess is that the multichannel layer may be cleaner and clearer, and the regular stereo layer folds some of the rear-channel material into the front channels, clouding the issue somewhat.

Finally, a couple of words about the packaging: namely, it's handsome and inconvenient. The disc comes housed in a cardboard foldout container that is attractive to look at. Beyond that, it's a nuisance to deal with. First, it folds out in three parts extending to some eighteen inches, thus making it cumbersome to handle. Next, there are two informational booklets enclosed--one in English and one in Spanish, French, and German--glued to the cardboard, thereby making them a chore to read. In addition, the disc come wedged into a stiff, permanent inner sleeve, defying anyone to get it out without putting fingerprints on the playing surface. Then there's the matter of the package opening left to right instead of the traditional right to left. Think of a book built backwards.


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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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.

Mission Statement

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa