Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto Italiano Portrait. Rinaldo Allessandro, Concerto Italiano. Opus 111/Naive OP 30363 (2-disc set).

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.

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.

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.

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