Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d'Amore Concertos (CD review)

Rachel Barton Pine, viola d'amore; Ars Antigua. Cedille CDR 90000 159.

The viola d'amore is an odd instrument. It's an odd instrument today and it was an odd instrument in Vivaldi's day. But Vivaldi was apparently so enamored of the instrument that he wrote eight concertos for it, all of which Rachel Barton Pine plays on the present recording, accompanied by Ars Antigua.

How unusual is the viola d'amore? Usually, it's a special twelve-string viola, played under the chin in the same way as a violin, the performer utilizing six of the strings while the other six, located just below the first six, resonant sympathetically. The instrument produces a rich sound with, as the accompanying booklet tells us, "a shimmering, halo-like tone." Ms. Pine tells us that when she was a teenager the instrument fascinated her, but she really fell in love with it when she had the opportunity to acquire an original-condition, 1774 Nicola Gagliano twelve-string viola d'amore, coincidentally, the top of which she says "was made from the very same tree as the top of my original-condition 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin."

Ms. Pine plays the eight Vivaldi Concerti d'Amore on the aforementioned historical viola, and Ars Antigua ("Ancient Art") attend her on period instruments. On the final concerto (Concerto in D minor, RV540), Hopkinson Smith joins Ms. Pine and the ensemble on lute. Now, if the sound and playing style of a period band concern you, have no fear. They may play in a lively vein with historical accuracy in the forefront, yet they are not a helter-skelter, hell-bent-for-leather group determined to produce the fastest-paced Vivaldi on record. These are charming performances, with musical enjoyment always the primary focus.

No, there is no worry about Ms. Pine or Ars Antigua running through the concertos too fast. If you are one of Ms. Pine's fans, you know that her manner of playing is always warm and smiling. Yet she is never lax; the outer movements are usually allegros, and she ensures that they sound full of energy and excitement. Just not at a breathless pace.

Rachel Barton Pine
Moreover, Ms. Pine and company imbue the concertos with enough nuance that they seldom sound the same one to another, which with Vivaldi can be an accomplishment. OK, I admit that I probably wouldn't be able to identify any of these pieces by number the next time I heard them; still, while a person is listening to them, they all take on an admirably different character, thanks mostly to variations in the way Ms. Pine plays them.

Anyway, the real question is whether you would be able to tell the difference in the sound of the viola d'amore and a period violin. I think most listeners familiar with a violin could tell. The viola d'amore has a slightly richer, more resonant, more airy sound than a violin. So, what we get here is a virtuoso violinist playing an instrument that more than ever shows off her talents. The player and instrument make beautiful music together.

The Concerto in F major, RV 97 is the sole work in the set that begins slowly, with a wind accompaniment, the full ensemble returning for the finale. It's unusual, to be sure, and quite delightful. The Concerto in A minor, RV 397 is the only work that has the feeling of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, so the listener need have little worry about that matter.

On the final concerto, RV 540, Hopkinson Smith accompanies Ms. Pine on lute. The lute adds a lovely, sensitive contribution to the program, the set going out on a real high note, musically.

Each concerto is around ten minutes long, so because there are eight of them, Cedille have filled out the disc almost to the limit with over seventy-nine minutes of material. You can't say you're not getting your money's worth with so much music, so well played, and so well recorded.

Cedille producer James Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the concertos at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago in November 2011 and July-August 2014. The sound is remarkably transparent: coherent as an ensemble yet with almost every instrument clearly defined. A light ambient glow highlights the proceedings as well, giving the recording an extremely lifelike feel. The soloist appears well placed among the other players, never too far forward, and the ensemble has a strong dimensional feel without being too wide or too narrow across the sound stage. The frequency response seems quite wide as well, with a welcome sparkle at the high end; and dynamics seem equally wide, so the whole thing comes off like a live performance in your living room.


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 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