Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)
Celebrating their thirtieth anniversary in 2011, the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is among the oldest and finest period-instruments ensembles in the world. This makes it all the more extraordinary that in dozens of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, Reference Recordings, BMG, and their own Philharmonia Baroque Productions, they had never before recorded Vivaldi's ubiquitous Four Seasons. For that matter, they have never recorded Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, but maybe with a recording as good as this one, it's better late than never.
Nicholas McGegan, the orchestra's principal conductor since 1985, chose to use musical scores based on original manuscripts provided by permission of the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino and Osterreichische Nationalbibiothek. The results they obtain by adhering to these scores, along with decisions no doubt entirely the responsibility of Maestro McGegan, may not please everyone, especially those listeners used to more-romanticized or more-breakneck readings. Instead, McGegan seems single-mindedly intent on producing as authentic yet as stimulating a realization of the music as possible. Not a bad decision if you ask me.
As most listeners know, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, yet people will probably always remember him best for his Four Seasons violin concertos, the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they comprise the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). People hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set.
I have to tell you, these Vivaldi Four Seasons interpretations sound more colorful and more imaginative than most I've heard. Indeed, they are some of the most vital, most vigorous, most forceful, most driving, most engaging renderings of the four concertos one could ask for. They are quite special.
So, just what makes McGegan's realizations any different from the 800 other versions you'll find on disc? Well, to begin with, as I say, these are not cushy, comfortable renditions, nor are they hell-bent-for-leather speed demons. In fact, McGegan generates fairly conventional tempos and sticks with the correct number of players indicated by the scores. No, the things that make McGegan's Vivaldi performances different and better than most others lie in his phrasing, his emphases, his attack, and his choice of dynamic contrasts. These are not timid readings but enthusiastically thrustful ones. If your idea of a great Four Seasons interpretation lies in its ability to make the listener actually hear and visualize the various times of the year, with all their attendant features, then McGegan's renditions with the Philharmonia Baroque are among the best-characterized ones currently before the public. You'll hear the yelping dogs, you'll feel the icy rain, and you'll be thoroughly entertained. If you're merely looking for another piece of Baroque background music to play at your next dinner party, forgetaboutit.
With all the talk about the works' graphic representations of the changes of the year, we tend sometimes to overlook the fact that each of The Four Seasons concertos is a three-movement piece for solo violin with orchestral accompaniment. In this regard, the various works not only set a pioneering standard for program music but for instrumental concertos as well. And each concerto provides Baroque violin soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock an opportunity to display her virtuosic technique. The whole set is a remarkable achievement on all counts.
Accompanying The Four Seasons we find three more Vivaldi concertos: the Concerto in B-flat major RV375; the Concerto in E minor, "Il Favorito" RV277; and the Concerto in E major, "L'amoroso" RV271. As McGegan does with their more-celebrated brethren, he handles them with characteristic ardor and élan, and I was especially taken by the lyrical bounce in RV271. Critics often joke that Vivaldi wrote the same music over and over again, but when you hear what McGegan does with these works, you're apt to change your mind. Despite some obvious similarities with The Four Seasons, each of these other concertos comes off with a distinct voice, tone, and style of its own. After you hear them, you may find yourself with a new respect for the composer's output.
Anyway, no matter what you think of McGegan's Vivaldi performances, as good as they are, there can be no question about the sound. These are simply among the best-sounding Vivaldi Four Seasons now before the public. OK, let me temper that somewhat, because with so many available recordings I admit I have not heard absolutely all of them. So let me assure you that out of the many dozens of Vivaldi Four Seasons I have auditioned over the past forty years or more, this one by Philharmonia Baroque is probably the best I've heard.
Audio engineer and producer David v.R. Bowles made the recording at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California, in December 2010. The resultant sound is extraordinarily vigorous, fairly close, with huge impact, as though the listener were in the studio with the orchestra. The midrange is as transparent as one could want, without a trace of harshness, brightness, forwardness, or edge. The bass and treble are well extended, with a strong, taut low end and glowingly natural highs. Moreover, one can hear into the orchestra, through the several lines of players, with an exceptionally fine separation of instruments. The string tone from the violins to the bass is beautifully, realistically captured, vibrant in every sense of the word.
I had about half a dozen recordings of The Four Seasons on hand for comparison, all of them well recorded. Yet in head-to-head competition, they all sounded glassier, softer, rougher, or less clear as the case may be than the Philharmonia Baroque recording, which outshone them all.
Finally, the disc comes housed in a handsome Digipak container with an attached, thirty-two-page booklet insert. Understand, I am not usually in favor of Digipaks because if you accidentally break the center spindle, it's over for you. You cannot replace a Digipak the way you can easily replace a standard jewel box. Nevertheless, in this instance the packaging is so attractive, I can overlook any possible inconvenience.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.