Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)
Sometimes you hear a piece of music a hundred times and you figure there is no other possible way to interpret it, and then along comes Concerto Italiano and makes you listen to it entirely differently. Such is the case with their 2002 recording of Vivaldi's perennial favorite The Four Seasons. Not that I like it better than so many other recordings, but it does make one sit up and take notice.
Is there a work in the classical catalogue more recorded than The Four Seasons? I doubt it. And it comes in all sizes, shapes, and flavors, from full, modern orchestras to small, period-instruments groups. Yet this recording from Rinaldo Allessandro and his band of a dozen or so players is nothing if not unique. Unfortunately, merely being different does not always translate to being listenable, at least not more than once, and while I found everything about the ensemble's performance new to me, I had little desire to go back and listen to it again. So, it is different and enjoyable the first time around, but for me, at least, it perhaps doesn't quite beg a repeat listening.
Concerto Italiano attack these four little tone poems with an enviable vigor. In fact, it's so vivacious, it's unlike anything I've heard before in these concertos. The Technicolor album cover may say it all. The tempos range from ultra slow, with pauses so long you'd think the players had nodded off to sleep, to racehorse speeds. The last time I heard tempos as fast as these was also from an Opus 111 recording, but it was with Europa Galante. Now, combine the brisk pace of a Europe Galante with the monumental breadth you'd expect from a Klemperer, and you get one wizard set of varied velocities. Add to the freshness of the rubato, ritardando, and ritenuto a hugely wide display of dynamics, occasionally enough to startle you out of your seat, and then some ornamentation that would do the Queen of Sheba proud, and you get a Four Seasons you're not likely to forget.
One can see Allessandro's point in trying to identify every one Vivaldi's chittering birds, galumphing horses, and drunken villagers; it does make for one colorful, often riveting reading. Nevertheless, in over-emphasizing Vivaldi's musical descriptions, Allessandro may have slightly overlooked the music itself. That did not, however, stop Gramophone magazine in 2003 from awarding it a "Record of the Year" award. Let me say again that it's a performance that is fun to sit through the first time but beyond which it may be a curiosity. It's all a matter of taste.
The second disc in the set presents a collection of bits and pieces from some of Concerto Italiano's previous recordings (1999-2001). Because people might find most of these works a little less well known, the orchestra seems to do better with them. Or maybe the group was just being more cautious in these earlier recordings. For instance, their Rossini Barber of Seville overture (OK, that one is hardly less well known), seems pretty conventional, even unremarkable, though extremely well played.
Opus 111 afford Concerto Italiano a generously open but perhaps too reverberant acoustic. The engineers made the dozen or so players appear to sound like a much larger group, given the room reflections they capture, which also tend to make the group sound a tad too forward. Regrettably, the acoustic environment, the Sala Academica del Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, does little to augment the bass, leaving us with somewhat bright, thin, billowy sonics. Overall, I'd say this is a release that every Vivaldi fan should hear, although it would not be my first choice in the repertoire.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:
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.