Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (SACD review)

Also, Il Riposo per Il S.S., Concerto L'Amoroso, Concerto Il Grosso Mogul. Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque. Channel Classics CCS SA 40318.

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.

Rachel Podger
Apparently, Ms. Podger has made something of a name for herself with previous concert performances of The Four Seasons, so, again, experience pays off. As I said, because of the small number of players involved, one hears a remarkably vivid, transparent sound. Then, there is the sound of the period instruments. Again, because of the small size of the ensemble and the clarity of the sound, each instrument stands out as something special, something unique, and definitely ancient (in a good way).

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:

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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