Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos 8 and 9 of Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione. Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico, Milano. Teldec Classics/Warner Classics 2564 64763-0.

You can find recordings of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) performed on period and modern instruments in arrangements for chamber orchestras, full orchestras, guitar ensembles, wooden blocks, tin drums, and glockenspiels. My own preference is for period instruments and a number of players that approximates what Vivaldi had in mind when he wrote it, so this release from Warner Classics of a 1993 recording by Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico nicely fills the bill. The fact that they do it up quite inventively helps, too.
That said, let me continue by saying that while Il Giardino Armonico play the Seasons splendidly and while I like period instruments, I’m not entirely sure any orchestra in Vivaldi’s day would have performed the concertos this way. Armonico’s way with them is, to say the least, unusual by today’s standards. Of course, they represent probably what any modern listener would want in a recording, considering that there are already hundreds of other, more conventional versions available. However, in the long run I’d consider the rendition of things by Il Giardino Armonico (“The Harmonious Garden”) primarily an addition to one’s other recordings of The Four Seasons rather than being one’s only recording.

Even though Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, most folks probably only recognize him for his Four Seasons violin concertos, those little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, and howling winds. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they make up 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 concertos in the set.

I recall reading years ago that in Baroque times orchestras usually played fast movements slower than they do in subsequent eras and slow movements faster. Later, I read just the opposite. In any case, Baroque orchestras would probably have emphasized tempo contrasts among movements more vividly than we do today. If that’s the case (and it’s a case still debated), then Il Giardino Armonico must stand firmly behind contrast because they definitely fill their Seasons with differences and deviations from the norm. What’s more, they tend to overplay Vivaldi’s descriptive elements, making this an entertaining but decidedly unusual Four Seasons, one that will delight some listeners and infuriate others.

We hear from Spring onward that the Il Giardino Armonico players not only emphasize tempo changes from movement to movement but practice a volatile rubato within movements with their extreme ritardandos and accelerandos, often along with magnified dynamics. The effect is dramatic, to be sure, and fun, but Antonini and his team never convinced me that this is the way Vivaldi or his contemporaries might have performed things.

Anyway, Armonico’s two most persuasive movements are in the Summer and Fall concertos, the former because the playing is the most creative, the latter because the slight hyperbole seems best to fit the occasion of drunken peasants, baying hounds, fleeing animals, dancing, and singing. Armonico’s most traditional reading is of the first, Spring Concerto, wherein the players take things easy. Compared to the other concertos, it actually sounds a little mundane.

Where Armonico’s style works least best is in Winter. Here, ensembles over the years have interpreted the opening moments of the first movement either by following the accompanying sonnet to the letter, that is, first slowly shivering in the cold and then quickly running and stamping to keep warm, with abrupt tempo changes between the two; or maintaining a more consistent tempo throughout. Obviously, the Armonico group elect the first option, making the shivering very slow and deliberate and the running fast and exuberant. But it’s the slow, second movement that may seriously annoy some listeners. It’s one of Vivaldi’s most amiable, most comforting tunes, a warm, cozy number suggesting folks sitting inside a cottage by the fire, free from the wind and snow. Vivaldi intended it as a Largo and marked it “peaceful and content.” With Il Giardino Armonico the music sounds like another Allegro, racing along pell-mell and losing most of its charm in the process.

We get some fine playing from the members of Il Giardino Armonico but especially from first violinist Enrico Onofri. Moreover, the disc’s two other pieces, Concerto No. 8 in G minor and Concerto No. 9 in D minor, also from Il Cimento dell-Armonia e dell’Inventione, make excellent couplings because we don’t hear them often enough, and their creativity is boundless. Then, too, without having to compare them to a ton of other recorded interpretations, they seem just right. These certainly come off as spirited realizations.

So, in the end, for whom might Teldec/Warner Classics have intended this rerelease? It’s not my business to make guesses or to tell people what to buy, but if pressed I’d say the two primary audiences are (1) folks who already have 800 copies of The Four Seasons on their shelves and are looking for something unique to break the monotony; or (2) folks who have never cared much for The Four Seasons and need something as captivating as this one to get them excited. Still, as I said before, I wouldn’t want Il Giardino Armonico’s interpretation as the one-and-only album in my library but as a supplement to period-instruments recordings by the likes of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBP), La Petite Bande (Sony), the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), the English Concert (DG Archiv), or Tafelmusik (Sony). I think these other recordings are safer bets than Il Giardino Armonico, just as entertaining, and at least as well or better recorded.

Producer Wolfgang Mohr and engineer Lucienne Rosset recorded the music for Teldec at Lugano, Radio della Svizzera Italiana (RTSI) Studio 1 in 1993. Warner Classics released it 2013. There is some discussion in the booklet notes about Il Armonico’s choice of pitch, suggesting that if they had followed Venetian practices, the result would have been too “brilliant and aggressive.” Fair enough, except that the sound still appears to favor the high end slightly and might still appear too brilliant and aggressive depending on one’s speakers. It’s not excessively bright, though, just a little light, and this small degree of brightness may even contribute to the overall clarity of the sonics.

The miking is fairly close-up, providing good definition, if not the most entirely realistic perspective. The recording doesn’t offer a lot in the way of room resonance or ambience, either, but, as I say, it does supply good, clean, clear playback. Additionally, the small number of Il Giardino Armonico players (about ten) contributes to the sound’s transparency, as do the recording’s quick transient response and taut impact.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I picked up the album based on a brief 5-star review by "BBC Music Magazine." I do agree that the Baroque performers would not have gone to such extremes, but I still find it an enjoyable recording.


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