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.
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: