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.
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: