Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto RV 253 "La tempesta di mare"; Concertos RV 565, 522, and 580 from "L'estro armonico." Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45565-2.

Another Four Seasons? Exactly what we needed, eh? Even back in 2003 when Virgin released this disc we already had enough recordings of this warhorse to supply everyone in a small town with a different copy, And did we really need another one from a period-instruments group that had just recorded the piece about ten years before? The answers, of course, were and remain decisive "maybes."

Fabio Biondi's previous recording of The Four Seasons was on Opus 111 (OPS 56-9120), winning several awards in Europe and for good reason. It was breathtaking in its tempos, spectacularly exhilarating from the very opening pages yet maintaining a remarkably smooth pace throughout, with only occasional lapses of ensemble. This more-recent recording from Europa Galante, released in 2003 by Virgin Veritas, sounds just as exciting, just as creative, just as vivacious, and just as rewarding, the composer's little tone poems taking on exceptionally vivid proportions. Biondi and his players are still hell bent for leather, of course, and the performance standards are, if anything, even higher, with the conductor-violinist using early original manuscripts to provide more-elaborate scores than we usually hear (love those bass slaps). Particularly if you liked Biondi's earlier recording and you're a big fan of fast-paced early-music readings, you'll want to consider this disc.

Be aware, however, that Biondi does, as I say, take things rather quickly, and some listeners may feel he's simply trying to attract attention to himself by outpacing the competition, literally. There is also the question of whether fast tempos can do justice to the nuances of Vivaldi's creations, the birds and animals and weather and such. That may be; but the proof is in the pudding, and there is no denying that whether or not Vivaldi intended for musicians to play his music as speedily as Biondi and some others do, Biondi's rendition of it is spellbinding in the extreme. Besides, music experts have been debating for years what tempos Baroque composers really wanted, one part of the historically informed crowd proposing that nineteenth-century Romantic conductors unduly slowed down the tempos, and others claiming that if the tempos were actually meant to be as fast as some orchestras today play them, hardly any but the most virtuosic eighteenth-century ensembles would have been able to execute them. Who knows.

My advice, for what it's worth, is for listeners to consider owning multiple recordings of this work, which, given its range of tonal colors, conductors can interpret in so many different ways.

Fabio Biondi
As important as the performance is that Virgin's sound is actually a slight improvement over Opus 111's, the earlier recording being a tad too bright and reverberant for my taste, masking some inner detail. This newer disc is still a touch bright and without as much low-end support as I would have liked, but its clarity is outstanding and its clean outlines are a revelation.

Now comes the rub: When I compared Biondi's recording to those of several other period-instruments groups, I felt the newer Philharmonia Baroque recording with Nicholas McGegan won the day for its sparkling, well-balanced performance and absolutely state-of-the-art sound. What's more, the Sparf/ Drottningholm (BIS) and Kuijken/La Petite Bande (Sony) recordings also seemed to me as competitive as any other, their recording sonics just as clear as Biondi's and their low end warmer and more natural. In fact, the McGegan, Sparf, and Kuijken recordings remain my top favorites not only for their sound but for their imaginative touches in matters of rubato and dynamics. Other old favorites, like Lamon (Sony), Parrott (Denon or Virgin), and Pinnock (DG Archiv), are also quite attractive but seem a touch bland alongside McGegan, Sparf, Kuijken, and Biondi.

Finally, for those listeners not yet converted to period instruments and seeking a Four Seasons on modern instruments, Marriner (Decca) remains of interest, as do I Solisti Italiani (Denon), I Musici/Michelucci (Philips), Perlman/LPO (EMI or Hi-Q), Silverstein/Ozawa/BSO (Telarc or LIM), Jansen and Ensemble (Decca), and others.


To listen to a brief excerpt 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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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