Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Decca Originals B0006627-02.

There was a time year ago that I had almost given up hope the major classical record labels were going to remaster and reissue any more of their back catalogue in audiophile or near-audiophile editions. Production of EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century," DG's "Originals," and Decca's "Classic Sound" had begun to slow down precipitously by 2006. But then Decca came back with a series of reissues in 96kHz/24-bit remasterings they called "The Originals," presumably taking the nod from their former rival, DG, and now stablemate at Universal Music.

Among the first releases in Decca's "Originals" series was the late Neville Marriner's 1969 Argo recording (issued in 1970) of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with violinist Alan Loveday and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. And I'm so glad that Decca not only remastered the recording in their most modern technology but included a front picture of the original Argo cover as well. Not only is it appropriate, it reminds me that I wasn't imagining things in remembering that in their beginning the Academy used hyphens in their name. I often still do, regardless of how they punctuate it now. Anyway, another retro thing the new Decca reissues do is embellish the top of each "Originals" disc with a replica of the old LP. In other words, the CD looks like a miniature vinyl record.

Sir Neville Marriner
It seems as though I have so many Four Seasons in my collection and so many that pass through the house for review that the only time I get a chance to listen to Marriner's performance is when a new edition of it comes along. Then it reminds me just how good it is. The last time was in the late Nineties when it appeared as a "Penguin Classic."

Years ago I included the Marriner recording in a survey of The Four Seasons, and I used the word "surrealistic" to describe it, a term suggesting the interpretation's imaginative touches. I'm not sure it's actually a compliment, but it seems appropriate. Marriner's views of the individual tone poems are highly evocative, as they should be, and are characterized by considerable polish, subtle embellishments, and sometimes dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamics. The fast movements are lively, often sparkling, and the central, slow movements are graceful and refined. However, it is those dynamic contrasts that stand out. The disc has had me jumping for the volume control on more than one occasion over the years. I couldn't say whether Marriner had a really precise control over his Academy musicians (likely), or whether the balance engineer did some tweaking of the dynamics after the fact (also possible), but the results are both startling and pleasant.

Yes, the sound is agreeable, although perhaps not the epitome of transparency. Still, it is warm and smooth. The new mastering seems to add a touch more clarity in the midrange, a bit more body in the upper bass, and, more important, eliminates the slightly sour overtones I remember hearing in its first CD rendering in the early Eighties.

Now, to make a good thing even better, Decca coupled The Four Seasons with three wind concertos that Marriner and the Academy recorded in the mid Seventies. If anything, they sound even better recorded than the Four Seasons, and they almost double the playing time of the disc over all previous editions of Marriner's Four Seasons alone. These added items are the Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor, with Neil Black and Celia Nicklin, oboes; the Bassoon Concerto in A minor, with Martin Gatt, bassoon; and the Piccolo Concerto in C major, with William Bennett, piccolo. Needless to day, they, too, are performed in impeccable style and grace by all parties.

While my tastes have changed somewhat over time, and I now tend to favor the period-instrument recordings by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), the English Concert (Archiv), La Petite Bande (Sony), and Tafelmusik (Sony), Marriner's modern-instrument version easily takes its place beside them.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa