Sep 20, 2011

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos RV375, RV277, and RV271. Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-03.

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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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