Vivaldi: Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (CD review)

Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45465 2 (2-CD set).

Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, "The contest between harmony and invention," put Vivaldi on the map insofar as concerns modern audiences because it begins with history's most famous collection of early tone poems, The Four Seasons. Vivaldi's publisher put them out in 1725, a time when the musical world seemed little used to music representing the sights and sounds of the environment around them. The works obviously continue to excite the imagination today, which is probably why there are so many recordings of them in the catalogue.

"The tempos are spectacularly exhilarating from the very opening pages, yet Biondi maintains a remarkably smooth pace throughout.... It is exciting, creative, and rewarding for anyone looking for something new in an old warhorse." That's what I wrote back in 1992 about the first recording Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante ensemble made for the Opus 111 label of the concertos comprising The Four Seasons. Having switched record companies some time ago, Biondi and his group of period-instrument players finally decided in 2001 to get around to the whole set of twelve concertos, which meant, of course, re-recording the famous first four. His performances remain very much the same as I remember them from the Opus 111 recording, the interpretations based on original manuscripts rather than the more familiar published ones. Whether the small variations in the present recording are worth the bother will probably only concern the Vivaldi connoisseur. What's more important is that Biondi and his players will take you on a whirlwind ride through the music. It makes me wonder, however, if there were really so many virtuoso orchestras around in the early eighteenth century that could play these pieces with the kind of ruthless yet lyrical abandon and exacting precision that Biondi and his people display.

Fabio Biondi
Anyway, I found the familiar four concertos at this pace stirring enough, but by the time I finished all twelve I was a little fatigued. So, I would advise taking them a few at a time, unless you're just playing them as background music.

The sound is exceptionally clean and somewhat close-up. At first blush I thought it a tad bright, but I became used to it. The clarity comes at the expense of some mid bass warmth, however, so the overall impression is not necessarily one of a live, concert-hall experience. I doubt that any reader of this site doesn't already have three or four favored Four Seasons, and maybe a favored recording or more of the whole set of twelve concertos in the set, so I won't bother with a recommendation. My own favorites in The Four Seasons alone remain: McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), Pinnock and the English Concert (DG Argo), Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca), I Musici (Eloquence), and Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik (Sony or Tafelmusik); with the stylish and refined I Solisti Italiani (Denon) doing the whole set of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione as well as anybody.

There are, incidentally, good booklet notes on these works in the Virgin set--two essays, in fact: one on the history of the music and a second by Biondi on why he chose to go back to the original manuscripts for his inspiration. As he says, "I believe it is absolutely legitimate to consider research into manuscript sources of these concertos as a contribution towards a more thorough knowledge of the multiplicity of instrumental techniques appropriate to the performing practice of Vivaldi and his school." As I say, though, whether original sources make the music sound any better is a matter of taste.


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