Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto in F for Three Violins; Part: Passacaglia. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; David Lockington, English Chamber Orchestra. eOne EOM-CD-7790.

What? Another one? Yet another Seasons? Wait for it: The last time I reviewed a disc from American concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers it was The Bach Album, which contained the equally ubiquitous Bach violin concertos. I found the performances so good, I continue to recommend them in my “Basic Classical Collection on Compact Disc.” Now we have her renditions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, accompanied by Maestro David Lockington and the celebrated English Chamber Orchestra, and the performances are almost as delightful as her Bach. While the music may be shopworn from overuse, Ms. Meyer does them up in a lively and refreshing style.

Before commenting on the interpretations, though, there’s an interesting note about the violin she uses for the recording. Ms. Meyers usually performs on a variety of Stradivari, ones she either owns or has access to use. This time, however, she uses the 1741 Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, built, coincidentally, in the year of Vivaldi’s death. In 2013 an anonymous buyer purchased the instrument for an unsurpassed amount of over $16,000,000 and announced that he would allow Meyers lifetime use of the instrument. Not only do connoisseurs consider it one of the finest violins in the world, no one has ever used it in the studio before; it makes its commercial recording debut here.

Anyway, back to the Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Although he wrote hundreds of pieces of music, folks probably recognize him best for The Four Seasons, the little three-movement tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, and howling winds. The composer meant them to accompany descriptive sonnets, making up the first four concertos of a longer work he wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). Most people hardly remember the other concertos in the set.

Under Ms. Meyer, the familiar Spring concerto is appropriately cheerful, made even more so due to the violinist not overdoing anything in the piece. You won't find any exaggerated tempos (although hers are quick and spirited in a refined manner); no unusual dynamic contrasts; no extraordinary slowing down or speeding up for dramatic effect. Ms. Meyers keeps everything moving along at a fairly conventional, though stimulating pace. It's probably the way most listeners want their Seasons--enjoyably colorful and invigorating, without being annoyingly different just for the sake of being different. The Largo, with its meadows and fields, sounds properly peaceful, yet it never lags. And the final Allegro capers along cheerfully.

Throughout all of the music, Ms. Meyers's violin sounds exquisitely gorgeous in tone and playing, and Maestro Lockington's accompaniment with the ECO is precise and agreeable.

Summer gets an even more highly characterized reading than Spring, with the season's heat oppressive, the birds chatty, the wind picking up nicely, and the threat of storm just a tad menacing. When the summer storm does arrive, it does so in a whirlwind of energy. Very invigorating.

Ms. Meyer begins Autumn a touch too energetically for my taste, but to each his own. The music soon enough slips away into a fitting, if not altogether traditional-sounding slumber. Then, the closing hunt goes well, if, oddly, a bit less animated than I would have expected.

Winter has always been my favorite segment of the Seasons, with its icicles and frozen landscape, its hurrying to warmth, its delectable Largo by the hearth, and its final hints of ice and chill outside. It's here that Ms. Meyers and company outdo themselves in musical representation. As listeners, we should see and feel these surroundings, and we do.

Coupled with The Four Seasons are Vivaldi's Concerto for Three Violins in F major, RV551, which makes a handy companion piece. What is more out of the way is Arvo Part's Passacaglia, which the composer wrote in 2003 for violin and piano and later arranged for violin and orchestra as we find it here. It's true the music of the Baroque period inspired Part to write the piece, yet it remains a curious choice to complement the Vivaldi. Yet complement the Vivaldi it does, especially as it directly follows his Winter concerto. The two have a surprisingly lot in common, as Ms. Meyers points out in her reading.

Producer Susan Napodano DelGiorno and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the music for Entertainment One at Henry Wood Hall, London, in 2013. The sound is pretty typical of today's better digital recordings. It's ultraclean and clear, a little bright and forward, with a somewhat glossy sheen on the strings. What appears to be a harpsichord sounds, for reasons unknown, so far in the background it's practically in another room. Ms. Meyers's violin shows up in the foreground, not distractingly forward but close enough to remind us whose show this is. Midrange transparency is OK, as are ambient bloom, frequency extremes, and overall dynamics. Not bad sound; just adequate for the occasion.

Finally, a couple of minor carps among all these otherwise lovely goings on: First, either Ms. Meyers or her producers appear to insist upon not providing track times; they didn’t do it on The Bach Album, and they don’t do it here. I don’t know why they exclude timings; maybe they don’t think listeners care. Well, at least they provide a few good program notes on the composers and their music. I also didn't care much for the way the booklet folds out a foot-and-a-half long, making it difficult to hold. Nor did I like the idea of their printing the booklet in white text on a dark-gray background, making it even harder to read. Luckily, it doesn't diminish one's appreciation for the performances.


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

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa