By John J. Puccio
Whatever, we all know what The Four Seasons is about: It’s a series of Baroque violin concertos that attempt to describe in musical terms the seasons of the year. Thus, we have early program music that aims in little tone poems to remind us of chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Vivaldi meant the concertos to accompany four descriptive sonnets comprising 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"). People hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set but instantly recognize the Seasons.
So how does this new rendering of the piece by I Musici stack up against the multitude of other recordings currently in the catalogue, including their own? Well, nobody is going to confuse them with any of the period-instrument, historically informed interpretations we have available. No, I Musici’s way with the music is more gentle, serene, elegant, sophisticated, and refined. Indeed, a lot of folks will probably find it old-fashioned, and yet it’s so cultured, so polished, one cannot help admire it. You’ll find none of the hurly-burly of many modern readings here, none of the exaggerated pauses, stops, contrasts, and blistering tempos so favored by other groups vying for our attention.
This is not to say, however, that I Musici aren’t sufficiently exciting or expressive. Many of their Allegros are quite animated, and the Largos and Adagios are as lyrical and evocative as any you’ll find. (OK, I thought they took the Winter Largo too quickly, but that’s just me.) They simply do up the music in a more subtle and tasteful way than a lot of other ensembles. Put another way: If you’re looking for the most descriptive performance of Vivaldi’s programmatic music, you might want to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for the most-beautiful, most-stylish, most-graceful, most-polished performance, you might find I Musici more to your taste.
The fact is that despite the many personnel changes to I Musici over the seventy-odd years of their existence, they haven’t changed their approach to The Four Seasons much in all that time. Maybe they see a good thing when they hear it. Maybe we should count that a good thing, too.
Of greater interest to some listeners may be the disc’s companion piece, The Four Seasons ballet music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) from his opera Les Vepres siciliennes, here arranged for string orchestra and piano by Luigi Pecchia. The music is sprightly and enchanting by turns, and I Musici play it delightfully.
Producers Domin Fyfe and Michael Havenstein and engineer Fabio Ferri recorded the music at Collegio San Lorenzo, Rome in April 2021. The sound is quite good, quite ravishing, actually. It’s clear, warmly resonant, well balanced, strongly dynamic, and nicely captured across the sound stage. Although there isn’t much depth to the sonics or much space around the instruments, we may count that an advantage as it emphasizes the idea that the entire twelve-member band play as a single unit.