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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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