For the past twenty-odd years, British conductor and violinist Rachel Podger has been a dominant figure in the fields of period-instruments and historically informed performances. She is a past leader of the Gabrieli Consort and Players and later of The English Concert, plus a guest director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Arte dei Suonatori (Poland), Musica Angelica, and Santa Fe Pro Musica (both in the United States) and as soloist with The Academy of Ancient Music, Philharmonia Baroque, and others. If that were not enough to keep one busy, Ms. Podger is also a professor of Baroque violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and teaches regularly at the Hochschule für Künste, Bremen. Moreover, in 2008, she took up the newly founded Micaela Comberti Chair for Baroque violin at London's Royal Academy of Music and then became professor of Baroque violin at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.
And she has also made a ton of recordings. Among them are Vivaldi's La Stravaganza concertos, which won Gramophone magazine's Best Baroque Recording of 2003, and Vivaldi's L'estro Armonico, Opus 3, which won Gramophone's recording of the month for April 2015. So she knows her Vivaldi. The wonder is that it took her so long to record Vivaldi's most ubiquitous work, The Four Seasons, but in this case better late than never.
Ms. Podger conducts from the violin and this time she is working with Brecon Baroque, a small period-instrument ensemble that includes Johannes Pramsohler, violin; Sabine Stoffer, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Allison McGillvray, cello; Jan Spencer, violone; Daniele Caminiti, theorbo; and Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichord and chamber organ.
The first thing one notices about a group so small is the transparency of the sound. Compared to bigger ensembles in these pieces, Mr. Podger and her players sound eminently clear. Which brings up the second thing one notices immediately: the period instruments. Each of them stands out for the distinctiveness of its sound.
I doubt I need to add anything more about the primary works here, the four concertos popularly known as The Four Seasons by the Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Practically everyone recognizes the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they comprise the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). While most people no doubt hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set, they cannot easily forget these first four.
Perhaps most important, though, is that while Ms. Podger and her company follow historically informed practice, that does not mean they make the music a race to the finish line. You'll find no rushed, frenzied, galloping tempos here. Indeed, the whole production sounds about as leisurely as you'll find most of the time. This is not to say the Allegros are slack, however. No, not at all. In the faster sections, Ms. Podger leads and plays with vigor and conveys an appropriate excitement or high spirits or whatever as necessary. It's just that she never speeds things up or slows them down simply for some ultimate dramatic effect. She does so as the music (and composer) demands.
I especially liked the unhurried simplicity of the "Spring" concerto; the sunny charm of the "Summer" concerto (and its thrilling conclusion); the humor and commotion of the "Autumn" concerto; and the contrasts of trembling cold and cozy warmth in the "Winter" concerto. Ms. Podger and her friends convey the musical scenes with vivid color and picturesqueness.
The other items on the program--Il Riposo per Il S.S., Concerto L'Amoroso, and Concerto Il Grosso Mogul--are ones that Ms. Podger has been performing for years, and again practice makes perfect. Even though these pieces don't leave one with the visual and aural impressions of Vivaldi's "Seasons," they are richly eventful, nonetheless, and Ms. Podger presents them with affection, authority, conviction, and utmost virtuosity throughout.
Producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and engineer Jared Sacks recorded the music at St. Jude's Church, London in October 2017. They made the disc for hybrid SACD playback, so you can listen to it in two-channel or multichannel SACD if you have an SACD player and regular two-channel stereo if you have only a regular CD player. As usual, I listened in the two-channel SACD mode using a Sony SACD player.
The sound is full, clean, and mildly resonant. Thus, we hear a good, lucid response from the instruments while they appear to be in a natural setting. The ambient bloom helps with the production's overall realism, yet it never interferes with the music's clarity. It's a sweet, warm, easy listening sound that puts one in the room with the players.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: