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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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